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Full text of "Big laugh,: a novel"

HHKBH 



UNIVERSITY 
OF FLORIDA 
LIBRARIES 




COLLEGE LIBRARY 



The Big Laugh 



Books by 
JOHN O'HARA 



Appointment in Samarra 

The Doctors Son and Other Stories 

Butterfield 8 

Hope of Heaven 

Files on Parade 

Pal Joey 

Pipe Night 

Hellbox 

A Rage to Live 

The Farmers Hotel 

Sweet and Sour 

Ten North Frederick 

A Family Party 

Selected Short Stories 

From the Terrace 

Ourselves to Know 

Sermons and Soda-Water: A Trilogy 

THE GIRL ON THE BAGGAGE TRUCK 
IMAGINE KISSING PETE 
we're FRIENDS AGAIN 

Five Plays: 

THE FARMERS HOTEL 

THE SEARCHING SUN 

THE CHAMPAGNE POOL 

VERONIQUE 

THE WAY IT WAS 

Assembly 

The Big Laugh 



THE 

BIG LAUGH 



A NOVEL by 



f ' 



John O'Hara 




RANDOM HOUSE • NEW YORK 




FIRST PRINTING 

© Copyright, 1962, by John O'Hara 

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Con- 
ventions. Published in New York by Random House, Inc., and simul- 
taneously in Toronto, Canada, by Random House of Canada, Limited. 
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 62-12124 
Manufactured in the United States of America by The Colonial Press Inc. 

DESIGN BY TERE LoPrETE 



I 



TO 

David Lewelyn Wark Griffith 
(1874-1948) 

Rudolph Alphonso Guglielmi di Valentino 

d'Antonguiela 

(1895-1926) 

Greta Louisa Gustafsson 
(1905- ) 

Roscoe Arhuckle 
(1887-1933) 



The Big Laugh 



People know when you are trying to be something 
that you are not. 

This law protects some good people who are in dan- 
ger of turning bad; it also makes it impossible for a lot 
of bad people to become good. 

By the time a man is forty his people — his family, 
friends, acquaintances, enemies, and even total strangers 
who have some reason to be aware of his existence — have 
decided what kind of man he is. Their judgment may be 
wrong, but it is their judgment and it is usually final, be- 
cause people in a group lack the patience to reconsider 
the evidence they have on one man. (The man himself, 
when he is being part of a group, makes the same kind of 
absolute, final judgments of other men as individuals.) 

3 



JOHN O HARA 

It is therefore unreasonable for any man to expect or 
to hope for a second mass human judgment that will im- 
prove his standing. By the same token, although a man 
may fall from grace, he will continue to enjoy the good 
will of those who had earlier convinced themselves that 
he was a good man. People who have made up their 
minds about a man do not like to have their opinions 
changed, to reverse their judgments on account of some 
new evidence or new arguments, and the man who tries 
to compel them to change their minds is at least wasting 
his time, and he may be asking for trouble. 

This is a story about a man who tried to be some- 
thing he was not; who wasted his time, and asked for 
and got a lot of trouble. As it happens, he was a rascal to 
begin with, and in a rare surge of perspicacity the people 
recognized him as such from the start. During his middle 
period he did nearly everything he could to behave him- 
self, but he only confused the people and while confusing 
the people he also confused himself, with results that were 
predictable because they had been predicted. This is a 
story, by the way, that will comfort those who believe that 
no man is all bad; in the man's middle period he be- 
haved very well indeed. However, it is not a story that 
offers much to those who believe in the permanence of 
regeneration. Reasonable people among those who be- 
lieve that no man is all bad will be content with this man's 
middle period, and may feel that the score comes out 
even, so many points on the side of good, the same 
number of points on the other side. The people who want 
regeneration to be permanent are fanatics for the happy 

4 



THE BIG LAUGH 

ending, dissatisfied with themselves and with everyone 
else, unrealistic men and women, anti-Christs, who were 
entertained by the miracles but learned nothing from Cal- 
vary. They are always the angriest, too, when regenera- 
tion does not take. 

Hubert Ward is the name of the man who is the 
principal character in this story, the public name. His full 
name, which not many people knew, was Richard Hu- 
bert Ward, but when he decided to go on the stage he 
dropped the Richard in favor of the slightly more exotic, 
romantic-sounding Hubert. Hubie Ward went on the 
stage because there was almost nothing else for him to 
do. He had no money, his education had not gone be- 
yond three and a half years at three preparatory schools, 
he had no salable talents, and his relatives were already 
so fed up with him that the only one, a maternal uncle, 
who could be persuaded to offer any help, consented to 
use his influence to get Richard Hubert Ward a job with 
a construction firm in South America. It sounded like an 
interesting proposition to Richard, who was then twenty 
years old; the pay was good, and South America, full of 
senoritas and adventure, seemed a glamorous part of the 
world. But by the luckiest chance Richard fell into con- 
versation with an engineer who had recently returned 
from the construction project, and Richard learned that 
the company was finding it impossible to hire men. Ma- 
laria and siflis were common, and there was constant 
danger from panthers, anacondas, and truculent Indians 
armed with poison-tipped darts and blowguns. No North 
American had renewed his two-year contract, the engi- 

5 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

neer said, a bit of information that particularly interested 
Richard, whose uncle had been insisting that he sign on 
for four years. Richard never spoke to that uncle again. 

Down to his last few dollars, without a high school 
diploma or the equivalent, with no special training or 
aptitudes, Richard in the late Nineteen-Twenties for the 
first time in his life was seriously worried about himself. 
His first thought was that he might get a job in a boys' 
summer camp; he was a good swimmer and a fair diver; 
he had never won any prizes at tennis but he was sure he 
could beat most twelve-year-olds; he could pick up wood- 
craft out of a book. But the word book reminded him of 
his scholastic record, and he well knew that neither of his 
three schools would recommend him as counsellor at a 
camp for young boys. He then turned to his assets. He 
had twenty-six dollars in cash, three suits and a dinner 
jacket, two pairs of shoes and a pair of evening pumps; a 
wrist watch and a gold pocket watch and chain; a gold 
cigarette case that he had taken from a woman he met in 
a speakeasy. The gold watch and cigarette case could be 
pawned, but after they were gone the cash situation 
would be critical. He had pawned his raccoon coat and 
his overcoat for the summer, and now that he was a city 
dweller he would never redeem the coonskin. He of 
course owned no securities or other valuables, and for 
reasons to be touched upon later in the narrative he had 
to rule out all prospects of inheriting money or property. 

He next considered what he had to offer in the way 
of intangible assets. He was a handsome young man of 
slightly more than medium height, with even teeth and 

6 



THE BIG LAUGH 

a clear complexion, and even if he had been willing to do 
so he could not deny that girls and women of all ages — 
although not all girls and not all women — regarded him 
as attractive. Many members of the opposite sex (each 
thinking she was being original) had commented on his 
blue eyes: "They're very deceptive," the women would 
say. "So innocent at first, like a choir boy's. But now you 
look more like a choir boy gone wrong." They often spoke 
of his roguish eyes, sly eyes, devilish eyes, eyes like Wal- 
lace Reid's. He knew his appearance to be an asset, and 
so were his manners, his taste in clothes, his conversa- 
tional line. He danced rather well, played the piano just 
well enough to read sheet music, played bridge well 
enough to sit in with his contemporaries, and he had a 
very good memory for names and faces. When he went to 
a restaurant the headwaiter usually treated him with that 
special amused respect that is reserved for young men 
who look as though they might some day be rich. But 
Richard Hubert Ward was not given to the kind of self- 
deception that would cause him to overestimate the cash 
convertibility of his intangible assets. For the first time in 
his life he was completely on his own, and he was mo- 
mentarily terrified. He did not blame himself for his pres- 
ent condition, but his predicament was so serious that he 
postponed the pleasure of blaming others. This, he real- 
ized, was a time to put his brain to work — and if he had 
had one thing drummed into him throughout prep school 
and the earlier years it was the fact that he had a good 
brain. 

At the moment he was living in an apartment in East 

7 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

Tenth Street, but he would have to get out in two weeks, 
when the regular occupant returned. Phil Sturtevant, a 
writer for Time, had lent him the apartment while Sturte- 
vant, a very junior writer, was on a late spring vacation. 
He had known Sturtevant at Andover, the first of Richard 
Hubert Ward's three prep schools, and Sturtevant may 
have been surprised to be reminded that they had been 
such close friends, close enough so that Sturtevant found 
himself lending his apartment to a younger schoolmate 
whom he had almost forgotten but who remembered him 
with such enthusiasm. Their reunion took place at Dan 
Moriarty's speakeasy; Richard Hubert Ward went home 
with Sturtevant that same night, stayed on a few days, 
and offered to pay half a month's rent for three weeks' 
occupancy. Sturtevant did not mind taking Ward's post- 
dated cheque. 

Richard Hubert Ward had not remembered to in- 
clude the cheque among his liabilities, and he was not 
too confident that Sturtevant would accept his explana- 
tion. He therefore had to be out of the apartment before 
Sturtevant's return, and it seemed advisable to be out of 
New York City. It was Ward's first bad cheque — indeed, 
his first cheque of any kind — and he had drawn on a non- 
existent account in the New Jersey bank where his mother 
kept her small account. In her present frame of mind his 
mother not only would not cover the cheque; she might 
well tell the bank to go ahead and prosecute. Richard 
Hubert Ward conceded that he had done an impulsive, 
stupid thing, but having done it for such a piddling sum 
as $37.50, he repeated it at a speakeasy for a hundred in 

8 



THE BIG LAUGH 

order to finance a party in Sturtevant's apartment. The 
idea of the party was an initial part of his new campaign 
to use his brains: he would have some people in, give 
them drinks, and one or two of them would surely lend 
him money or show him a way to make some. Richard 
Hubert Ward had always believed in his luck, and with 
luck and brains he might come across something that 
would enable him to give Sturtevant cash in return for 
the cheque. 

He decided to invite five young women and five men; 
the men from the financial district, the girls from Green- 
wich Village. He ordered the liquor from Sturtevant's boot- 
legger and the canapes from Sturtevant's delicatessen 
man, fully intending to pay on delivery, but the bootlegger 
and the delivery boy assumed that Sturtevant was to be 
charged, and Ward did not correct them. At six-fifteen of 
a warm June day the guests began to arrive, and at half- 
past six the party was in progress. 

The young men were all a few years older than Rich- 
ard Hubert Ward and none of them knew him very well, 
but in inviting the men he had said over the telephone, 
"Having some girls in. Actresses and models. So I can't 
ask you to bring your wife." The implication was plain 
enough, the inference was correctly drawn. The girls 
came because they were asked; a party required no other 
explanation. Some of the girls knew each other and so 
did some of the men, but none of the girls had met any 
of the men until the evening of the party. Before nine 
o'clock, however, one of the girls and one of the young 
men had retired to the bedroom, and another couple 

9 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

seemed to be well on their way. The men had taken off 
their coats and vests, the girls had taken off their shoes 
and one had removed her girdle. "Thizz a hell of a good 
party," said one young man to the host, but the host did 
not think so. His plans were not working out. The young 
man who had retired to the bedroom suddenly appeared, 
embarrassment or disgust on his face, and left the apart- 
ment without saying goodnight to anyone. His father was 
a vice-president of the Bankers Trust, and Richard Hu- 
bert Ward had particularly counted on doing some busi- 
ness with the young man. The girl appeared a few minutes 
later and calmly helped herself to a rye and ginger ale. 
"Who was that Eagle Scout?" she asked her host. "He 
wanted to know if I'd ever had a Wassermann, the son of 
a bitch. I didn't ask him. Dick, I think you have some very 
unattractive friends. I mean I really do." 

"Yes, but rich, Audrey," said Richard Hubert Ward. 

At a few minutes past ten o'clock, as though a gong 
had struck, the party collapsed. The second eager cou- 
ple were still in the bedroom, but all the others simultane- 
ously decided to leave, and did so together without invit- 
ing the host to join them. Apparently they assumed that 
Audrey and Richard wanted to be together, an assump- 
tion that was only half right. In any event, Audrey and 
Richard were now alone in the livingroom. 

"Oh, I'll be so glad to get out of New York," said 
Audrey. 

"You going somewhere?" 

"I sure am. Didn't you read in the papers? I got my 

10 



THE BIG LAUGH 

name in the papers. I have a job in a summer stock com- 
pany on the Cape. The East Sandwich Players." 

"Does it pay well?" 

"Does it pay well? Pays nothing. But we get room 
and board and a chance to act in some very good plays. 
The best kind of experience for somebody just starting 
out. Ill have different parts in four, maybe five plays this 
summer. Some of the company have been on Broadway. 
But the great advantage in addition to the experience, 
the managers go from one company to another, looking 
for new actresses. " 

"Where do you live?" 

"On the Cape? In a boarding-house in Buzzards Bay 
or Woods Hole, they aren't sure. Come up and see me. 
You've never seen me in a play. I'm good." 

"I didn't know you'd ever been in a play." 

"Last season, I had a walk-on in Just for the Three of 
Us. Terrible play, but at least I can say I was on Broad- 
way. Twelve performances, not counting two weeks out 
of town. Oh, I'm an actress, and I'm good. You could act, 
Dick." 

"What makes you say that?" 

"Oh — I don't know. You wouldn't like it if I told 
you. 

"Go on, tell me." 

"Well, I don't see you as anything else. I thought you 
were like one of these Wall Street fellows, till tonight. But 
when I saw you with them I knew you were different. 
And you never reminded me of a writer, or an artist. You 
must be something, so maybe you're an actor." 

11 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

"Nuts." 

"All right, 111 tell you. I think you're such a big phony 
that you ought to be an actor." 

"Oh, you do, do you?" 

"You have the same kind of phoniness about you that 
actors have." 

"When did you come to that conclusion?" 

"I always thought so, but especially tonight. Playing 
up to those stockbrokers, and you didn't know what you 
were talking about. They saw through you, too, but they 
were getting your free liquor." 

"And you were in there humping like a donkey with 
a guy you never saw before." 

"Well, I'll never see him again, you can be sure of 
that." 

"I don't care whether you see him or not." 

"Bad enough asking me if I ever had a Wassermann, 
but do you know what he did? Take a look at this." She 
reached in her purse and held up some banknotes. 
"Eighty-one dollars. He gave me all the money in his 
pocket. Eighty-one dollars. He didn't even count it. I'm 
no whore. But I'm going to keep it just the same." 

"Profitable evening." 

"I'm glad you think so. I went with him because I 
liked him, the son of a bitch, and all he thought was I was 
a whore. Well, if that's what he thinks I'll keep his money. 
God, if my parents ever thought I took money for going 
to bed with a man, they'd positively die." She laughed. 

"What's so funny?" 

12 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Maybe I ought to give you half, it's your apartment. 
But try and get it." 

"Call him up next week, 111 bet you could get some 
more." 

"You know, 111 bet I could, too. Oh, hell want to see 
me again. You should have heard him when I got un- 
dressed. 'Apples of ivory/ He must have a very frigid wife 
he's married to, that boy." 

"Well, wouldn't that be better than going to the 
Cape and working for nothing?" 

"Certainly would not." 

"If you liked him once you could like him again, and 
his father's one of the richest men in Wall Street." 

"You suggesting that I become his mistress?" 

"No, but why don't you? It isn't as if you were in love 
with somebody else. Unless you're in love with me." 

"You? Anybody that would fall in love with you 
would have to have bats in their belfry." 

"Says you. I had plenty of girls in love with me, and 
not only girls. The last school I went to, I was kicked out 
on account of the school dentist's wife, and she was 
thirty-five or -six years old. They're getting a divorce on 
account of me — partly. I've had plenty of women in love 
with me." 

"Then all I can say is God help them." 

"You were pretty close to it." 

"No. I had fun with you, but that's a different story 
than being in love with you. I nearly always have fun with 
you, Dick, except when you take yourself too seriously. 
Will you come up and see me this summer?" 

13 



=n 



JOHN O H AR A 

"Maybe I will, I'm not sure." 

"Come up and hang around for a while, maybe 
they'd give you a job painting scenery, selling tickets. You 
could have fun, and you're not doing anything better. I 
can't figure you out, whether your parents have money or 
what. But I'll bet you'd have a good time if you came up. 
There are two other girls besides myself in the company, 
and one of them you'd like. The other one's too serious, 
but this one you'd like. Julie. Her father teaches at Yale." 

"I don't know. There're plenty of girls around New 
York, especially in the summer." 

The conversation was interrupted by the appearance 
of the couple from the bedroom, their arms around each 
other's waist, and both somewhat groggy. 

"He's plastered to the hat," said the girl. 

"Lashed to the mast and plastered to the hat," said 
the man. "You waiting to use the bridal suite? I can guar- 
antee it's comfortable." 

"Audrey knows. She tested it," said the girl. 

"And now you've tested it, so you know too," said 
Audrey. 

"Everybody go home?" said the man. "The hell time 
is it?" 

"Looks like fi' minutes of four," said the girl. 

"Five minutes of four?" said the man. "God, I won't 
get three hours' sleep." 

"You had some sleep," said the girl. "Anyway, I don't 
think that is five minutes of four. It's more like twenty 
after eleven." 

"Well, that's better. Then we can make a night of it." 

14 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Starting with you take me out and get me some 
dinner," said the girl. 

"Too hot to eat," said the man. "But 111 take you out 
and buy you a bucketful of stingers. How would you like 
that?" 

"Ill have a stinger but I want something to eat, too. 
Are you coming with us, Dick? Audrey?" 

"No thanks. But before you go, tell your boy friend 
to button his fly," said Audrey. 

"My fly open? So it is. I wonder how that happened? 
Come on, Jezebel." 

They left, and as they closed the door Audrey stuck 
out her tongue. 

"Is that at him or at her?" said Richard. 

"Him. I hate those bond salesmen. They make every- 
thing dirty," she said. "Well, Dick, you coming up to the 
Cape?" 

"Ill let you know. Write down on a piece of paper 
where I can reach you." 

"The East Sandwich Players, that's all you have to 
remember. And no kidding, you could have some fun. I 
can't guarantee you a job, but if you just hang around a 
while they'll give you something to do." 

The bad cheques were a good enough reason for get- 
ting out of New York, but Richard Hubert Ward was 
influenced less by fear of the law than by a new, irresisti- 
ble appeal to his vanity. He had never thought of it be- 
fore, but Audrey had made him suspect that the stage 
was where he belonged. All his years in suburban New 
Jersey and prep schools and in his brief career in the 

15 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

night life of New York he had felt some pull toward an 
occupation that no one in his family or among his friends 
had been identified with. No one had ever suggested the 
stage; he had never gone out for dramatics at school. But 
someone who had been on the real stage — Audrey — had 
put it to him so simply that he immediately recognized 
the thing he wanted to do. It was so much the thing he 
wanted to do that he was convinced there was nothing 
else for him to do. He was without any awe of it, of get- 
ting up before a lot of people, of memorizing lines; with- 
out fear of awkwardness in moving about or not moving 
about. He had never read a modern play, he had never 
seen a play-without-music by his own choice. The great 
names of the theater meant nothing to him except as cele- 
brities in the night life and in the tabloids. And yet he 
already had the feeling that he had found where he be- 
longed. 

And he was right. 

He remained in Sturtevant's apartment until the day 
before Sturtevant was to return, and then, without notify- 
ing Audrey, he took the train to Buzzards Bay, found a 
room, and bummed rides to East Sandwich and had a 
look at the barn that called itself a theater. He was wear- 
ing white ducks and scuffed saddle-straps and no one 
noticed him particularly. He entered the barn theater 
by the front door and seated himself in a rear row of camp 
chairs. It was rather dark where he was sitting, and on the 
small stage a group of men and women were obviously 
rehearsing a play. A man in a crumpled linen suit and yel- 
low foulard bow tie was addressing one of the women. 

16 



THE BIG LAUGH 

". . . And the whole point of it, Mary, the whole point is 
this is no accidental shooting. You really want to kill the 
son of a bitch. He's thrown you over for your kid sister, so 
you have two reasons for hating the bastard. He's given 
you the air, and now he's going to run away with your sis- 
ter, that you happen to be very fond of. Shall we try it 
again, or is there something eating you?" 

"No, the only thing is, 111 have a real gun in my hand, 
won't I?" 

"We're getting you one from the hardware store," 
said the director. 

"Well, when Paul sees the gun, shouldn't he be 
afraid?" 

"No. He thinks you're bluffing. He's been sleeping 
with you for three years, remember, and you've threat- 
ened him before. First act, second scene." 

"But not with a gun," insisted the actress Mary. 

"He still thinks you're bluffing," said the director. 

"I don't think I ought to let him see the gun," said 
Mary. 

"Well, the author thinks you should, and I agree with 
the author, so let's do it the way it was written." 

"Only a suggestion," said Mary. 

"Yeah, I know. All right, places please, everybody in 
this scene. Paul, take it from your line, 1 never thought of 
her that way.' " 

" 1 never thought of her that way, that's your suspi- 
cious mind,' " said Paul. 

"Audrey! Where the hell are you? You're supposed 
to be onstage with the tray so you can overhear that line. 

17 



^A 



JOHN O HARA 

You testify later that you heard him accuse her of having 
a suspicious mind. You have to be there right on cue." 

"I'm sorry/' said Audrey. "I was waiting for Mary's 
line." 

"No, no, no, no, no. Paul's line. Your cue was Mary's 
previous line." 

"Oh, of course," said Audrey. 

They tried the scene once again, and Richard Hu- 
bert Ward found that he was mouthing all their lines, 
knew precisely where each actor should be, and — happy 
discovery — was completely and perfectly at home. In 
spite of knowing nothing about the preceding events in 
the play, knowing only what he could learn from this one 
brief scene, he understood the play, which was not diffi- 
cult, and, moreover, he was sure he could improve upon 
it and on the director's presentation of it. 

As Richard Hubert Ward was making these discov- 
eries the director chanced to turn to speak to a young man 
who was seated behind him, and in so doing noticed the 
stranger. "You back there, who are you?" 

"Me? Just a visitor," said Richard Hubert Ward. 

"Well get the hell out," said the director. 

"I'm not bothering anybody," said Richard. 

"You're bothering me." 

"No wonder," said Richard. 

"What do you mean, no wonder?" said the director. 
"Who are you, anyway?" 

"Try and find out," said Richard. He got up and left 
the theater, angry and disappointed that he had so 
quickly botched his entrance into the only career that 

18 



THE BIG LAUGH 

had ever interested him. He made a guess that the direc- 
tor was a third-rater, professionally on a level with the 
masters at the worst of the prep schools he had attended; 
tacky, voluble, overauthoritative, mean, and afraid of 
their own mediocrity. Richard hid in the apple orchard 
until he saw the actors coming out of the barn, and when 
he was satisfied that the director was not with them he 
caught up with Audrey and some others. 

"Dick! Was that you Ruskin was giving hell to? 
When did you get here? Where you staying?" She cut off 
her questions to introduce him to a very tall, very thin 
young man, a pretty girl, and a middle-aged woman, none 
of whom he had seen before. They acknowledged the intro- 
ductions and promptly left. 

"Not exactly the friendliest people I ever met," he 
said. 

"Ruskin has everybody scared. They're all afraid 
they'll be sent home before they get in the first play," 
said Audrey. 

"But you're not scared." 

"Well— no." 

"Oh, that's how it is? Who the hell is this Ruskin? 
He must be King Shit around here." 

"Shows how much you know. He's a very successful 
Broadway director. Directed some of the most famous hits 
on Broadway." 

"Then what's he doing in a dump like this?" 

"This isn't a dump. A lot of famous playwrights try 
out their new plays here because Martin Ruskin really 
knows the theater. And he's the owner here." 

19 



=n 



JOHN O HARA 

"You seem to ve changed your mind about the place. 
You didn't make it sound so important the last time I saw 
you." 

"I didn't change my mind one bit," she said. "Where 
you staying, or are you staying?" 

"I got a room. Where are you staying? With Rus- 
kin?" 

"No, but what if I was?" 

"Listen, you got me to come up here." 

"What if I did? You didn't have to pick a fight with 
the manager and director the first time you show up . . . 
I have to leave you." 

"You don't want Ruskin to see me talking to you." 

"I certainly don't." 

"You're as afraid of him as the others." 

"I'm not afraid of him. I like him. And he likes me." 

"Well, then that's that." 

"You could have saved yourself the trip if you'd 
have bothered to write me a note. Coming here without 
any advance notice." 

"Was that girl you just introduced me to, was that 
the one you said I'd like?" 

"No. You wouldn't like any of the girls here." 

"Hell's bells, I like any girl as long as she's pretty and 
can be laid. But you want me to get out of here, is that 
the idea?" 

"Yes, before you spoil everything for me." 

"I'm not going to spoil anything for you, but you got 
me up here and now I think I'll stick around a while." 

"Please go away. I'll meet you late tonight if you'll 

20 



THE BIG LAUGH 

promise to go away tomorrow. I'll pay your fare back to 
New York." 

"My fare?" 

"No use trying to fool me, Dick. I found out some 
more about you. That boy that gave me the eighty-one 
dollars? I saw him again and he told me all about you." 

"He doesn't know all about me." 

"He knows enough. Have you got an uncle that's 
some kind of a builder?" 

"What if I have?" 

Audrey nodded. "Your own uncle told Jack not to 
have anything to do with you. Your own uncle." 

"Well, if Jack Dunbar's going around spreading sto- 
ries about me I'm glad I know one about him. I better go 
back to New York tomorrow, to protect my reputation. I 
can't have Jack Dunbar going around — " 

"I shouldn't have told you that." 

"Listen, thanks for telling me." 

"No, now wait a minute, Dick. You don't want to 
ruin things for everybody." 

"Don't I? When the vice-president of the Bankers 
Trust Company's son is spreading stories about me? He 
was supposed to be a friend of mine. If he wasn't, why 
did he come to my party? I have plenty of witnesses that 
he was there. And what did he give you eighty bucks 
for?" 

"There's Ruskin. See me tonight. I'm staying at Mrs. 
Amos Pierce's, West Falmouth. Okay?" 

"What time?" 

21 



—\ 



JOHN O HARA 

'One o'clock. Ill meet you on the front porch at 



one. 



She ran from him, and he watched her get in a green 
Packard roadster with Ruskin. As they passed the spot 
where he was standing she let her hand fall outside the 
door of the car and waved it. 

She was in Mrs. Pierce's porch swing when he arrived 
a few minutes before one. "I don't know what I came here 
for," he said. 

"Yes you do," she said. She put her arms around his 
neck and kissed him. 

"Oh, cut it out, Audrey. I didn't come here for that, 
and you're faking anyway. Wasn't Ruskin enough for 
you?" 

"Then what did you come here for?" 

"I told you I don't know, but not to have you faking 
hot pants. I want to finish that conversation this after- 
noon. Why shouldn't I go back to New York? That sancti- 
monious son of a bitch, I'm going to make him pay for 
what he said about me." 

"You mean money?" 

"Well, why not money? He drank my liquor and that 
cost me money. Yes, money." 

"You mean you'd commit blackmail? You'll end up 
in jail, the first thing you know." 

"Don't be so sure. And what if I did? My uncle'd like 
that if it got in the papers. I'd like to fix him too. I always 
did hate that son of a bitch." 

"You're only twenty years of age, Dick. That'd be a 

22 



THE BIG LAUGH 

terrible thing to live down. That'd be a black mark for 
the rest of your life." 

"What do you care if I have a black mark the rest of 
my life? Protecting Jack Dunbar." 

"I didn't say I was in love with you, ever, but I like 
you enough so I wouldn't want to see you disgrace your- 
self for life. Honestly I do. It isn't only protecting Jack 
Dunbar. I like you better than I like Jack. Honestly. He 
shouldn't have told me those things about you." 

"What did he tell you?" 

"Oh — things your uncle told him. I didn't believe 
half of them, or else how did you get into other schools? 
Your uncle said he got you in three schools and you were 
kicked out of all of them." 

"I was shipped home from two. The first one they 
asked me to withdraw. Did he say what I was kicked out 
for?" 

"Morals." 

"Is that all he said?" 

"That's all Jack told me. Morals. I knew what one 
was because you told me. The doctor's wife." 

"Dentist's wife. The doctor's wife was a fat old cluck, 
I wouldn't have touched her with a ten-foot pole." 

"Dick?" 

"What?" 

"Put your arms around me. I don't want to fight with 
you. We don't have to do anything. Just put your arms 
around me." 

She took one of his arms and drew it around her 
waist. "That's better," she said. "Dick?" 

23 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

"What?" 

"Are you a fairy?" 

"The hell I am. You know better than that. Why did 
you ask me that?" 

"Isn't that what they kicked you out of one of the 
schools for?" 

"God damn it, he did tell you more, didn't he?" 

"He said it was immorality with another boy." 

"He ought to get the story straight if he's going to 
tell it around. It was one boy that was a fairy and they 
caught him with me and two other boys, but he was the 
fairy, not us. They were just waiting to catch him, but we 
were all sent home. They could have sent the whole 
school home, practically. Cuban boy. We hated him. We 
used to send for Ricco instead of a girl. We all made jokes 
about him all the time, but there were only three of us 
sent home. Us and Ricco. It's a wonder they didn't get 
wise to him before that. Maybe they didn't want to be- 
cause his family were so rich." 

"What else did you do?" 

"At school?" 

"No, I mean besides school." 

"Did my uncle tell Dunbar about other stuff?" 

"Oh, he gave your life history." 

"Was there an automobile accident mixed up in it?" 

"Yes." 

"Then I guess he told him about that. When I was 
fourteen I swiped my uncle's car. He had a Wills Ste. 
Claire, and I took it one day while he was playing golf. 
I killed somebody." 

24 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"You killed somebody? How?" 

"I drove over to South Orange to a girl's house to 
take her for a ride, but she wasn't in. So I was on my 
way back, and I could have made it in plenty of time so 
my uncle wouldn't have known I'd taken the car. But an 
old woman crossing the street in East Orange . . . 
There was a trolley car stopped and she walked in front 
of it and right in front of my uncle's car. I smacked her, 
she went up in the air and down on the street. I kept on 
going, but somebody took the license number and I was 
arrested that night. It was the old woman's fault, but I 
didn't have a license and I didn't stop. They sued my 
uncle and he had to pay them around five thousand dol- 
lars, even if it was the old woman's fault. Five thousand 
dollars. He won that much when Dempsey beat Willard, 
but you'd think it was his last penny. And the kids 
at home — I was practically ostracized. Never allowed to 
have a car and I wasn't allowed to apply for a license till 
last year. What else do you want to know? There's plenty 
more, once I get wound up." 

"Yes. What do you live on? Where do you get 
money?" 

"What money?" 

"Well, you have to have some money. To pay your 
rent. To eat with. To come up here cost you some 
money." 

"The man with the three balls." 

"What?" 

"I hocked some things, but now I haven't much left 
to hock. I was hoping I could get a job as an actor." 

25 



JOHN O HARA 

"I told you they don't pay us anything. Why don't 
you try to get a job as a waiter or a bellboy, at one of 
the hotels? That would tide you over for the summer/' 

"I wouldn't know how to be a waiter, and I wouldn't 
like it. I might as well try to be an actor. I know I'd like 
that." 

"Yes, but what are you going to live on?" 

"They feed you at your theater, don't they?" 

"Room and board, but Ruskin isn't going to give 
you a job, and he has the say." 

"I don't know. I had experience with men like Ruskin. 
Teachers. I could always get around them." 

"Not Ruskin. He's a very smart Jew, too smart for you, 
Dick." 

"If he's really smart, he'll give me a job." 

"Why should he?" she said. "He doesn't even like you." 

"I know, but I have something, and if he's smart hell 
see it. That is, if he's smart. And if he's not smart, I can 
outsmart him. Ill bet you he gives me a job." 

"You're the most conceited bastard I ever heard." 

"I hope Ruskin thinks so. I'm counting on it. I had a 
lot of experience with men like Ruskin." 

"You don't know the first thing about him." 

"You're wrong there. He doesn't know anything 
about me, but I know a lot about him. I watched him for 
two hours yesterday afternoon, and he reminded me of 
two teachers I used to have. This time tomorrow 111 have 
a job with Ruskin." 

"Not a chance. Not a prayer." 

After a while he left her, and in the morning, toward 

26 



THE BIG LAUGH 

noon, he went to the theater and sat in Ruskin's car. 
When Ruskin appeared and saw him in the car Richard 
Hubert Ward spoke first. "Do you remember me?" 

"You're the fresh punk from yesterday. What the hell 
do you think you're doing in my car? Get out, make your- 
self scarce." 

"How about taking me to lunch and we can talk it 
over." 

"Talk what over?" 

"Listen, Ruskin, I didn't come all the way from New 
York for nothing." 

"You did as far as I'm concerned. Get outa my car." 

"Make me get out — and make a horse's ass of yourself 
trying. In front of everybody. A lot of people are watch- 
ing us, Ruskin. You don't want to look like a horse's ass in 
front of them." 

Ruskin recognized simple truths. He got in the car, 
barely controlling his rage, and put the car in motion. 
"I'd like to know what you think you're doing? Who are 
you, anyway?" 

"I don't want to talk to you till you calm down. Do 
you want me to drive?" 

"No. Yes. I'll move over and you take the wheel." 

"Oh, come on, Ruskin. You want me to get out and 
youll drive away? Come on, Ruskin." 

"Well, I won't get out. You'd steal my car. I think 
you're a crazy man." 

"You're not the first one that said that. But I'm harm- 
less." 

27 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

"What the hell do you want? Speak your piece and 
stop bothering me." 

"Let's ride around a while till you calm down." 

"I'm stopping right now," said Ruskin. He switched 
off the engine and put the key in his pocket. 

"Suit yourself. Want a cigarette?" 

"I have my own cigarettes. Just tell me what this is 
all about?" 

"It's a frame-up," said Richard Hubert Ward. 

"A frame-up? What are you talking about?" 

"If a cop came along now, I'm twenty years old, and 
you're a lot older than that. If I wanted to tell the cop 
a nasty story, you could get in a lot of trouble. You 
shouldn't have stopped the car on a country road. You 
should have done what I asked you — take me to lunch. 
But there goes a car with two people in it. What do 
they think a man your age is parked with a young guy 
like me for? Here comes another car. I advise you to get 
going, Ruskin. We'll go somewhere and have lunch." 

"You wouldn't get anywhere with that. That's one 
thing I haven't got a reputation for. Quite the opposite, 
in fact. So you've outsmarted yourself." 

"Have I? A lot of people saw me waiting in your car, 
and then saw me driving away with you at the wheel. 
What is your reputation for? Girls? They'd say you were 
covering up. And maybe you are, Ruskin. That's what I 
think." 

"God, I never met a son of a bitch like you. I swear 
to Christ you're the worst son of a bitch I ever met in my 

28 



THE BIG LAUGH 

whole life. You're what crawls out from under stones. 
What do you want? Money?" 

"How much would you give me?" 

"Not a God damn cent. I'd go to prison before I paid 
you any money." 

"No you wouldn't." 

"There you're wrong. I would. Before I gave you money 
I'd go to prison. Try me. But I got an idea you don't want 
money. You want something else besides money. What is 
it?" 

"I want a job in your theater." 

"Well, you not only don't get it, but I'll fix it so you 
never get a job in any theater, anywhere." 

"Is that final?" 

"You bet it's final." 

"Without knowing what I'm going to do next?" 

"I don't care what you do. Just get out of my car. And 
never show your face around here again." 

"All right. I'll get out of your car." Richard Hubert 
Ward peacefully turned the door-handle and stepped down 
to the roadside. "Go ahead, Ruskin. I'm not going to do 
anything to you. You can go. Don't be afraid." 

"Afraid? Afraid of what?" 

"Oh, well, that's another story." Ward smiled. "Go on, 
Ruskin. What are you waiting for? I haven't got a gun on 
me. I'm harmless." 

Ruskin put the car in gear and moved the car forward 
a few yards, then stopped. 

"Keep going," said Ward, over the noise of the engine. 

Ruskin again put the car in gear and now he con- 

29 



JOHN O H AR A 

tinued shifting into third speed, which took him out of 
sight of Ward. Ward sat on a fence and lit a cigarette. 

In less than five minutes Ruskin returned. "Get in," 
he said. 

Ward casually tossed his cigarette in the ditch and 
lazily got in the car. "You changed your mind," he said. 

"What's your name?" said Ruskin. 

"You giving me a job?" 

"I'm giving you nothing." 

"Then I'm not giving you my name." 

"Why do you want a job in my theater? You're not 
an actor." 

"No information till you say you'll give me a job." 

"You took a big chance. The police around here know 
me. I've been coming here every summer." 

"You're taking a big chance right now, Ruskin." 

"How am I? I don't happen to think so." 

"You thought it all over, and you decided you were 
safe." 

"Correct." 

"But you had to think it over first, didn't you? Why 
did you come back?" 

"Frankly, to get another look at the worst son of a 
bitch I ever met. To see if you were for real." 

"I'm for real. And now I'm sore. I wasn't sore before. 
But now I am, and you look out." 

"You're a real specimen, all right." 

"So are you, Ruskin, or you wouldn't be here. Just a 
little bit afraid. And why are you afraid? Because I 
guessed you right, didn't I?" 

30 



THE BIG LAUGH 
"NO." 

"Yes I did, and you know I did. And I know it now. I 
was only guessing before, but not any more. Do I get the 
job?" 

"What job? What could you do? You're not an actor." 

"Ill be an actor." 

"There's nothing for you." 

"There's plenty for me. I don't mind working at the 
other stuff. But I won't take the job unless you guarantee 
I get on the stage sometime." 

"You won't take the job? I haven't offered you a job." 

"Cut the shit. We're past that." 

"Do you know there's no pay to it?" 

"To me there is. Room and board, and I want ten 
bucks a week spending money." 

"And what do I get out of it?" 

"Nothing." 

"I don't get it. If I were what you think I am, I'd want 
something out of it. But if I'm not what you think I am, 
why should I give you a job?" 

"Because I'm me, Ruskin, and you know I've got 
something. I know what you are. You're double-gaited. I 
detected that watching you yesterday. Showing Mary how 
to act. But me, I'm an actor. I'm going to be a big actor, 
and you're the first one to know it except me." 

"I don't think you'll ever be an actor, if you live to 
be a hundred. But a stage personality — I'll give you that 
much. Are you hungry?" 

"Yes, I am." 

31 



JOHN O HARA 

"Well, we'll turn around again and I'll buy you some 
lunch. What's your name?" 

"My name? Hubert Ward." 

"The hell it is. Hubert?" 

"Well, it's Richard Hubert, but I decided Hubert 
was better than Richard." 

"All right, Hubert. Room and board." 

"And ten bucks a week." 

"No. No money. I'll give you a job because maybe you 
do have something, but the money would be blackmail 
and I won't pay it." 

"All right." 

"The worst son of a bitch I ever met in my whole life. 
But what the hell? In this business. What about your peo- 
ple? Where do you come from and all that?" 

"I have no people." 

"They kick you out?" 

"Yes." 

"But they were what they call nice people? Conserva- 
tive suburbanites? And you're the black sheep of the fam- 
ily. What did you do?" 

"Don't ask too damn many questions. I don't want 
to be reminded of them." 

"How did you know about me? Oh, sure — Audrey. 
Yeah, you're true to type, all right. But the personalities 
make the money while a lot of good actors are starving. 
Hubert Ward. The goniff. The schlemiel. The schmuck. 
Who's your favorite actor, Hubert?" 

"I don't know. Al Jolson, I guess." 

"Yep. You wouldn't even say George Arliss." Ruskin 

32 



THE BIG LAUGH 

shook his head, and looked at the specimen at his right. 
If Martin Ruskin had been a little more evil than he 
was or a better man than he was, his interest in this new 
Hubert Ward might have become more intense, either on 
the side of corruption or of regeneration. But Ruskin was 
a reasonably competent hack director, a failure as a writer 
but an experienced and knowledgeable hand at getting 
the most out of the second-rate plays that came his way. 
He made a good living out of the theater, with at least one 
new play a season and not infrequently he had had two 
plays running concurrently. He had on several occasions 
got himself credited as co-author of plays he directed, and 
this maneuver was of considerable financial benefit to him 
over the years through stock company and amateur pro- 
ductions far removed from Broadway. He had got into 
the theater as a press agent — more accurately as a boy-of- 
all-work for an established press agent. He was then nine- 
teen years old and living with his family in The Bronx. 
His father was dead, and he and his mother were being 
supported by an older brother, George, who was on the 
road for a yard-goods firm and doing well. George wanted 
Martin to go to college and study law — which was what 
George had wanted to do — but Martin's best marks in 
high school had been in English and his only prizes had 
been for declaiming Spartacus and the other classic ora- 
torical exercises. George thought Martin would make a 
good trial lawyer; Martin thought Martin would make a 
good actor, in parts that did not demand a personable 
leading man. He was not a comely youth, and he knew it. 
Through family connections he got the office boy job in 

33 



JOHN O H AR A 

the press agent's office, and almost immediately he aban- 
doned the idea of becoming an actor and during his 
spare time he read and wrote plays, and more or less in 
line of duty he spent as much time as possible watching 
rehearsals. His presence was tolerated, and he was quick 
to learn, and at twenty-one he produced his first play. 

It was a just barely legal theft of Clarence, written by 
a young man recently out of the Baker English 47 Work- 
shop at Harvard. The young man was the same age as Mar- 
tin, but because he had seen Martin behind a desk in a 
Broadway manager's office he assumed that Martin was 
someone of some importance. Martin had grown a mous- 
tache to make himself look older, and Ralph Harding 
was exactly what he had been looking for: someone with 
a play and some money. Martin knew that the play, 
Dickie Takes a Walk, had been rejected and was waiting 
for the convenience of the playreader to send it back to 
the author. Martin saved her the trouble. On Ralph 
Harding's next visit to the office Martin jumped up and 
greeted the anxious playwright. "Mr. Harding, I been hop- 
ing you'd come in today. I want to have a talk with you," 
he said. He took Harding's arm and steered him out of the 
office to a Childs restaurant. They ordered pancakes and 
coffee, and Martin made his first speech as a producer. 

Without ever stating his own position in the office 
of the producing firm he told Harding he believed in 
the play, that it was not the kind of play that should be 
put on by a big firm. It needed personal attention. He be- 
lieved it could be put on for ten or at the most fifteen thou- 
sand dollars, and he thought enough of the play to make it 

34 



THE BIG LAUGH 

his initial venture as a producer. If Harding could raise 
ten thousand, he would raise the rest. He meant every 
word he said, he said, and all he asked of Harding was 
that he keep the transaction a secret until he resigned his 
job with the producing firm. A good comedy was a real 
moneymaker — look at Lightnin. And he had hopes that 
this would be the beginning of a real, lasting partnership. 
The play was put on, ran just under three weeks, and 
Martin Ruskin came out about two thousand dollars 
ahead. The notices were not entirely bad, and Martin, in 
addition to the quiet profit in cash, had acquired a new 
friend. He and Ralph Harding had been through a blood 
bath together. Ralph at Martin's urging decided to retire 
to Dark Harbor, Maine, to get to work on his new play, a 
serious drama something like Troilus and Cressida but 
not really Troilus and Cressida. It would be up-to-date — 
"modren," Martin then pronounced it — and it would give 
Ralph the opportunity to express himself about women. 
Ralph did not like women, and Martin had not had any 
success with them either. Ralph had had what might be 
called some success with men, and Martin was surprised 
but not shocked to discover that Ralph had become very 
fond of him in that way. On the closing night of Dickie 
Takes a Walk Ralph abandoned all restraint and made 
love to his new friend. Later he begged Martin to forgive 
him, promised it would never happen again, and went off 
to Dark Harbor to write his drama. Martin did not mind. 
He was only confused by what he considered a kind of 
compliment. In any event he was now really in the 
theater; he had had his name in the programs as producer, 

35 



JOHN O HARA 

he had made a nice piece of change, and he had been se- 
duced by a playwright who was also a society boy. The 
next move was to get a woman, and that turned out to be 
as easy as opening his office door in the morning. 

The play brokers now began to send him the works of 
the new and the passe and the firmly second- and third- 
rate authors. He was well aware that the brokers offered 
him only junk that had been rejected elsewhere, but so 
long as he did not stand to lose his own money he was 
willing to produce plays that would, if nothing else, get 
his name more firmly established. He in turn began to 
make it a condition of producing plays that he could func- 
tion as co-author on plays he thought had some pos- 
sibilities. Here he struck a snag; the brokers demanded a 
commission, which he refused to pay. For a time the bro- 
kers sent him no plays, but he won out against them be- 
cause it was better for them to take ten percent of their 
clients' royalties than no percent of nothing from their 
clients' unproduced plays. In a very short time he was 
well hated on Broadway, and thus he advanced to a sec- 
ond phase of his theatrical career: he was known as Mar- 
tin Ruskin, that son of a bitch, although he was only 
twenty-five years old. (In interviews he added five years 
to his age, and he affected older men's dress and was care- 
less about shaving his beard. There were those who be- 
lieved he was lying when he said he was only thirty. ) 

He lived at a Broadway hotel, two blocks away from 
his office. The women who went to his room came away 
with stories that contributed to his legend, some true, 
some at least half true. At twenty he had never had 

36 



THE BIG LAUGH 

a woman; at twenty-five he had a surfeit of them, of those 
wanting jobs, and then of those who were in part wanting 
jobs but were also investigating the legend. He wanted no 
woman for very long, but out of perversity a few women 
convinced themselves that they were in love with him. 
The extreme exhibitionists among them outranked him 
on Broadway; there were two great beauties and one ex- 
cellent actress who would not for a moment consider ap- 
pearing in one of his plays, but who made public fools of 
themselves over him. They had paid no attention to him 
while the legend was being created, and they recovered 
quickly when he failed to achieve any form of first-rate 
prominence. Martin had become a small name at twenty- 
one, a promising newcomer at twenty-three, and at twenty- 
five he was forever, irrevocably marked as deficient in supe- 
rior talent and great good luck. 

He began to suspect his standing when he announced 
a play to open on a night in October and the Theatre Guild 
subsequently announced a play to open on the same night. 
He knew immediately that he would not get reviews from 
the first-string critics, and he thereupon changed his date. 
It was not so much that he was being honest with himself 
as that he was having honesty forced upon him by the 
gesture of the Theatre Guild. The Guild people obviously 
had seen his earlier announcement and in effect had as- 
signed his play to the second-string critics. They were pro- 
fessionals at the Guild, and theirs was a professional judg- 
ment. "Due to scenic difficulties, the opening of the new 
Martin Ruskin . . ." was his face-saving statement to 
the press. It deceived almost no one, and he became an 

37 



^ 



JOHN O H AR A 

ideal man to operate a summer theater. There he could 
bully authors, direct when he wanted to, make a little 
money, live cheaply, sleep with whomever he chose, and 
make like a king. In his way he loved the theater, but 
above all he loved his summer theater. 

The Martin Ruskin East Sandwich Playhouse, per- 
sonal supervision of Martin Ruskin, was in its third con- 
secutive summer when Hubert Ward joined the East 
Sandwich Players. The enterprise was therefore a going 
concern, not subject to the difficulties and exigencies of a 
summer theater that was just starting out. It had its 
patrons and patronesses, its mailing list, its comforta- 
ble arrangements with the tradespeople and the summer 
hotels in the neighborhood, and mutually beneficial under- 
standings with various organizations that would buy tick- 
ets in quantity. Martin Ruskin lived in a saltbox that 
he rented furnished, and ate most of his meals at the 
Paul Revere Inn, where he had a due-bill. He got his gas 
and oil free, along with similar perquisites that were ex- 
changed for curtain advertising. The first summer had 
been the hard one, but he had convinced the natives that 
his Playhouse was an attraction and that his Players were 
well behaved or at least kept their misbehavior in the com- 
pany. The Yankees took to Martin, up to a point, and in 
his second and third summers his principal problem was 
in finding maid-bits and small walk-ons for stagestruck 
daughters and nieces. Martin was not summer-people; 
like the Yankees he was out to make a dollar off the sum- 
mer people, and this fact enhanced his relations with the 

38 



THE BIG LAUGH 

natives. They were out to make a small dollar off him, but 
they found him pretty sharp, pronounced shap. 

Because the Playhouse was on its way to becoming an 
institution, Martin Ruskin could permit himself the luxury 
of devoting most of his time to the plays and players, with 
the non-creative details taken care of by Sylvia Stone, who 
was his New York secretary in the winter. Sylvia was even 
shapper than Ruskin, a stout, jolly woman who could 
laugh a merchant into lending her some stage props that 
he knew would never be returned. It was up to Sylvia to 
find a bed for Hubert Ward to sleep in. 

"I don't understand you taking on this Ward Hubert," 
she said to Martin Ruskin. "What's he got to offer?" 

"I don't understand it either." 

"You got reasons for everything, Marty. This is Sylvia 
you're talking to." 

"Maybe he's a kind of another version of me. I don't 
mean with the looks." 

"No, I don't see any resemblance in any manner, 
shape or form. Physically, I'm speaking." 

"There isn't any. But he put me in mind of Richard 
Barthelmess. He has no resemblance to him, either, but 
they're both clean-cut, you know what I mean?" 

"The all-American boy." 

"The all-American goy, did you say? Anyway, Syl, 
I'm putting him on." 

"As what?" 

"The bottom of the ladder. One of the Martin Ruskin 
apprentices." 

"I'll give him the toilets to clean." 

39 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"Suit yourself. But I don't want him to quit." 

"Then I won't give him the toilets." 

"No, I don't think you better. You don't like him?" 

"Such a stuck-up! He irritates me beyond words. He 
sat on my desk and informed me he wanted a room by 
himself, not with anybody, and I told him that was im- 
possible. Impossible. And then he said did he have to eat 
with the others and I told him if he wanted to eat he did. 
The next thing was he tried to put the touch on me for 
twenty dollars, so that was so ridiculous I humored him. 
I said when would I get it back, and he gave me some 
bushwah about a letter from his guardian. He said he had 
a guardian." 

"You didn't let him have any money." 

"That you can be positive I didn't. Lending money to 
actors is the quick way to the poorhouse, I know from ex- 
perience. Then he asked me did I have a car, and with my 
car sitting outside the office I couldn't say I didn't. Why? 
He said he wanted to make sure who had cars in the com- 
pany, in case he wanted the loan of one. He said your car 
was too conspicuous. For what, I said. Was he planning 
to hold up the bank? No, he said, not hold up any bank. 
Oh, in five minutes' time he tried everything, and ended 
up walking away with my pack of cigarettes I had lying 
on my desk. We had one like him the first summer." 

"No, we never had one like him. This one is going 
places, Syl. Don't you honestly think so?" 

She paused to reflect. "It goes against the grain, but 
I guess I have to admit it. Personal magnetism is one word 
for it. It's too bad it has to be wasted on people like that." 

40 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"If you were an agent would you sign him?" 

"Think I would," she said. 

"Then be an agent. He wouldn't know the difference. 
You can get a copy of one of those contracts. Sign him." 

"Marty, I wouldn't want him around me that much. 
He's the kind of a man that I'd be a mess before I 
was through humiliating myself. Women like me have to 
steer clear of that type man or suffer the consequences. 
One man like that could take all the fun out of life, and for 
what? A cheap thrill, only not so cheap. What would I be 
if I wasn't good-natured, Marty?" 

"You're afraid of this fellow?" 

"I don't have the looks to get another man in a hurry. 
Yes, I'd be afraid of him if I gave in. I wish he never came 
here. That's my personal reaction, you understand. As far 
as the Playhouse is concerned, you think you made a dis- 
covery so that's okay by me, Marty. You're thinking 
of tying him up some way?" 

"If my hunch is correct. I don't say hell ever be an 
actor. That I doubt. But I'll see if he can learn the basic 
elements, and maybe I'll find a play that he can play him- 
self. That's as good as money in the bank." 

"As long as that's what you can tell yourself, Marty." 

"That — and some day I'll be able to say I discovered 
him." 

"He'll deny it. Just don't you get injured." 

"Me?" 

"Marty, there's some topics it isn't my place to dis- 
cuss, but give me credit for having two eyes. I know you 
five years, Marty." 

41 



=n 



JOHN O H AR A 

"Yeah. Well, find him a bed, and don't lend him any 
money/' 

"It won't be my bed, and it won't be my money, that 
you can be certain." 

"By the way, his name is Hubert Ward. You had it 
ass backwards." 

"So?" 

Never again would Hubert Ward work so hard for so 
little return, never again would ^ve or six years' difference 
in ages carry any weight, and not again for many years 
would any man — or woman — be obeyed by him as Martin 
Ruskin was obeyed that summer. This was brought about 
by a combination of circumstances: Ruskin, busy with 
rehearsals of the plays on his schedule, had no time to 
waste on Hubert Ward and in his preoccupation he acci- 
dentally gave the appearance of aloofness; Sylvia Stone, 
in self-protection, learned to despise the newcomer and 
gave him the heaviest and least interesting chores; and 
Hubert Ward, once he had been made a member of the 
company, began to discover that there was more to acting 
than memorizing lines and speaking them aloud. And 
there were two other circumstances that made him want 
to remain at the Playhouse: he was broke, and through 
Audrey he learned that Phil Sturtevant had put the rent 
cheque in the hands of a lawyer. Hubert guessed that no 
one would look for him at a summer theater, and the 
Playhouse seemed a safe place until after Labor Day. 

Hubert Ward was given two small acting parts: in 
one he played a collegiate type, complete with ukulele; 
in the other he played a chauffeur, in ill-fitting livery and 

42 



THE BIG LAUGH 

oversize puttees. As the chauffeur he had only to say: "The 
limousine is waiting, Madam/' but as the college boy he 
had several wisecracking lines. He made the most of them. 
He very nearly made too much of them, and antagonized 
the aging matinee idol who was the visiting star of the 
play. "Martin, those are throw-away lines," said the star. 
"But our friend here isn't reading them that way." 

"Don't worry about it, Phil. When we have an audi- 
ence they won't be listening to anybody else but you," 
said Ruskin. 

But the opening-night audience laughed at the lines 
and spoiled the star's entrance. The lines were therefore 
toned down in succeeding performances. Nevertheless 
Hubert Ward continued to be noticed by the audience. 
The star had once offended Hildegarde Finney, a woman 
in her early forties who was a permanent member of the 
Players, and she taught Hubert his first lesson in scene- 
stealing. "When Phil comes on, you're sitting on the porch 
step, right? Well, when he crosses, you start tying your 
shoe. But don't let him catch you at it." 

Martin Ruskin caught on immediately, and after that 
night's performance he summoned Hubert to his office. 
"Who gave you that business of tying your shoe in the first 
act? You didn't think that up yourself." 

"My shoelace was untied and I was afraid I'd trip 
making my exit." 

"Twenty-four-carat horseshit. I know who tipped you 
off — Finney. Well, tomorrow night, no business with the 
shoelace, see? I don't pay a star big money to have funny 
tricks played on him. The people come to see Philip W. 

43 



^ 



JOHN O HARA 

Carstairs, that's what they pay their good money for. You 
got that clear?" 

"All right. But if he's that big a star why was he so 
worried about my four lines?" 

"You'll find out. You'll be worse than he is if you ever 
get anywhere. And I'll tell you something for your own 
good. Philip W. Carstairs could have made a real horse's 
ass out of you if he'd wanted to. You just weren't worth 
the trouble." 

"How could he? I want to know these things." 

"All right. Last night, when your funny lines were still 
in the play. He could have come on and before he makes 
his opening speech he could have stopped dead in front 
of you and stared at you and then slowly, slowly walked 
away from you, still staring at you. The people would have 
laughed at you the way he intended them to, and you'd 
have had to make your exit with your tail between your 
legs and no exit line. He could have destroyed you. Don't 
fuck around with old-timers like Philip W. Carstairs, if 
you know what's good for you. He could do more with his 
left eyebrow than you'll ever be able to do with both 
hands and both feet and lines written by George Bernard 
Shaw. The rest of the time he's here you do yourself 
a favor. Just study the way he walks, onstage. Every step 
is thought out. Every step. Watch the way that man puts 
his left hand in his coat pocket when somebody else starts 
a speech. Then just as the speech is ending he starts tak- 
ing his hand out of the pocket. You think that's accidental? 
Listen, fellow, I don't only pay him to come here and draw 
the crowd. I study him like going to school, every re- 

44 



THE BIG LAUGH 

hearsal, every performance. And you think you can crab a 
scene for him. Huh! Are you screwing Hildegarde? Or is 
she just getting even with Phil?" 

"Her? I'm not that hard up." 

"You're missing something, but I guess you never laid ^ 
a real woman." 

"That's all you know. I was kicked out of school for 
laying a woman thirty-five. She got divorced on account 
of me, partly." 

"Save it for some other time. While you're here, I got 
something else I want to talk to you. Lay off the town 
girls. I got a big investment here, a lot of good will with 
the natives. Now don't give me any of your lies, I don't 
have the time to listen. Just lay off, or out you go. George 
Shackleton happens to be one of the Selectmen, and one 
word from him and we don't come back here next sum- 
mer. If you want to get laid, Audrey or Hildegarde, but 
Shackle ton's daughter is out of bounds for you." 

"She's waiting outside." 

"Why do you think I'm warning you?" 

"What'llltellher?" 

"Tell her anything. Tell her you have a clap. Or I'll 
tell her." 

"I never had a clap." 

"Then you don't want me to tell everybody you have. 
You wouldn't even get Hildegarde if I passed that around. 
I don't care how you get out of it, but you get out of it." 

"I didn't go after her, she came after me." 

"Aren't you used to that by this time? I'll get you out 
of this tonight." 

45 



JOHN O HARA 

"How?" 

"I'll tell the kid her old man's getting wise." 

"All right. She's afraid of her old man." 

"So am I. Did you ever see him? Built like Zybysko. 
If he ever got a hold of you he could break your spine. 
You stay away from these Yankee girls, and the Portu- 
guese, too. Their fathers carry fishing knives, or you'll end 
up married to one of them." 

"I don't want any trouble with them." 

Ruskin went out and came back a few minutes later. 
"As soon as I mentioned her old man she ran." 

"Thank you," said Hubert Ward. 

Ruskin was astonished. "You getting polite?" 

"Oh, not only for getting rid of her." 

"What else?" 

"I don't know how to say it. You know, working here, 
acting. This is the first time in my life I ever had a good 
time. I guess I ought to apologize for the way I acted that 
day in the car." 

"Well, for Christ's sake." 

"I'm not a bad fellow, Mr. Ruskin. I didn't mean to 
be, or want to be. I just always got into scrapes all my life, 
and people looked down on me. My father committed 
suicide when I was a kid." 

"Over what?" 

"I'm not sure. Something about money." 

"Are you kidding me?" 

"No, it's true. He shot himself." 

"I don't mean about your old man. But this politeness 
and all, all of a sudden." 

4 6 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"See? People always get suspicious of me. There's 
something about me. Every time I went to a new school 
some older boy or some teacher'd start giving me hell be- 
fore I ever did anything. Before I had a chance to. A fel- 
low pushed me in the lake with all my clothes on the sec- 
ond day I was at one school. He said he just didn't like my 
looks." 

"You could of drowned." 

"No, I'm a good swimmer. It wasn't that. It was hav- 
ing somebody hate me that never saw me before." 

"Yeah, I can understand that. I had that experience 
more than once, myself. On account of my religion." 

"Well, I don't know about that, but the last couple of 
days I suddenly realized I began to feel like a new human 
being. I never knew any actors before. They're funny 
people, all right, but I like them just the same. I don't 
know why." 

"You feel at home with them?" 

"I guess that's it. Not exactly, but sort of. Yes, I guess 
so. I'm getting to be more at home with them. They all 
gossip about each other and they're always complaining 
about something, but I guess that's it. I never felt at home 
with people before, and I do with them. They're kinder 
than most people. Two or three of them were sore as hell 
because Mr. Carstairs took away my lines, and nothing 
like that ever happened to me before, people sticking up 
for me. It was always just the opposite." 

"You're a funny kid, all right," said Ruskin. 

"Kid? I'm almost twenty-one." 

"When is your twenty-first birthday?" 

47 



-^ 



JOHN O HARA 

"The end of August. The thirtieth. Why?" 

"You'll be twenty-one then, huh?" 

"Yep. All the fellows I grew up with, when they were 
twenty-one their families gave them a car, or a trip to 
Europe. I won't even get a postcard from my sister. They 
don't know where I am, and I don't want them to know. 
Some day the bastards will wish — oh, well, what the hell." 

Ruskin reached in his pocket. "Here, take this. I 
know you're on your ass. Consider it a birthday present, 
your twenty-first birthday." 

"Ten bucks? Thanks, but I wasn't giving you a hard- 
luck story, Mr. Ruskin. Are you sure you want me to have 
this?" 

"Sure I'm sure." 

"Well, thank you very much. Ill take it if you really 
mean it." 

"It'll keep you from stealing butts from Sylvia Stone. 
Now I got a lot of work to do. Rehearsals at ten-thirty." 

"Goodnight, Mr. Ruskin. And thanks." Hubert Ward, 
a happy young man, went out. 

"The poor son of a bitch," muttered Martin Ruskin. 
"I should be so poor." 

It was the first and last happy summer in the life of 
Hubert Ward. The Playhouse and the work there were 
like a boarding school where the tasks were tasks, but of 
the kind he liked to do; and the recreation was of a more 
mature character than at any boarding school but there 
was a simple enjoyment of it because he convinced him- 
self that he had earned it. At the Playhouse, instead of the 
algebra and plane geometry that he was pretty good at, 

48 



THE BIG LAUGH 

he took tickets, lined up the camp chairs, drove the old 
Ford station wagon — and rehearsed his small roles. For 
recreation there were Audrey and Hildegarde and the 
unsuccessful pursuit of Julie. And always there was a feel- 
ing of safety, of security; he had enough to eat, a place to 
sleep, and he tried not to think too much of the summer's 
end and the serious problems that awaited his return to 
New York. He did not quite expect that the police would 
be at Grand Central when he got off the train, but he was 
worried about Sturtevant's lawyer and that bad cheque, 
and only somewhat less worried about the bad cheque to 
the speakeasy owner. Sturtevant's lawyer signified the 
police; speakeasy owners sometimes had people beaten 
up. Late in August Hubert Ward in a moment of despera- 
tion thought of writing a cheque for $200 and cashing 
it on the Cape. Then he thought of writing four $50 
cheques, which would be much easier to cash. Then he 
thought of simply stealing the box-office receipts on the 
Labor Day weekend. And then he discarded all these 
plans because none of them made any sense. His future 
was in show business, as he had begun to call it, and his 
immediate future depended entirely on Martin Ruskin. 

Hubert put his brains to work on the problem of 
Martin Ruskin — and he was a problem. He was sure that 
Ruskin was attracted to him, and that if he gave him the 
opportunity, Ruskin would confirm his suspicions of him. 

During the few times when they were alone together 
Hubert saw a different Ruskin from the public one. 
Ruskin was not a Ricco, the Cuban boy at St. Bartholo- 
mew's. Ricco was indiscriminate, promiscuous; Ruskin 

49 



^-\ 



JOHN O HARA 

was attracted to him, more the way girls were attracted 
to him. But the problem of Ruskin was that he could not 
be compelled to give him money. He had always believed 
that Ruskin had spoken the truth when he said he would 
rather go to prison than pay him money. And in his two 
months with show people Hubert had learned that the 
blackmail value of an accusation of homosexuality was 
considerably less in show business than in a boarding 
school, where there were frightened teachers and stu- 
dents. Philip W. Carstairs, for example, was known to 
have a boy friend in New York and had been whisked off 
to Provincetown by two men and two women at the end 
of his Playhouse engagement. Even Audrey, the least 
knowledgeable of the Players, referred to Carstairs as an 
old queen, and she was neither shocked nor repelled. A 
great artist, she also called him. Hubert Ward therefore 
concluded that if he was to get any money out of Martin 
Ruskin it would have to be voluntarily on Ruskin's part. 
And Martin Ruskin appeared to be the only man in the 
world at the moment who would be good for two hundred 
dollars, the absolute minimum with which to return to 
New York. 

Hubert's twenty-first birthday passed with no notice 
taken by anyone. He had not mentioned the occasion to 
anyone else in the company, and they were all busy with 
their own plans. It was the last week for the Playhouse, 
and the actors and actresses were full of talk about cast- 
ing the new plays on Broadway. Hildegarde and Julie 
already had jobs for later in the fall season, and the others 
had somehow found out which new plays would have 

50 



THE BIG LAUGH 

parts they could apply for. "What are you going to do?" 
said Audrey. 

"I wish I knew," said Hubert Ward. 

"Are you going to look for a job?" 

"I wouldn't know how. How do you?" 

"The best way is to find out what parts are in the new 
plays. Then you show up every day at the managers' 
offices." 

"And then what?" 

She shrugged her shoulders. "Then what, yes? I per- 
sonally go to St. Malachy's and light a candle. Not that 
I'm a Catholic, but it's supposed to be good luck." 

"Where do you find out about the new plays?" 

"Well, the Algonquin, when I can afford it. That's 
where you got a chance of being introduced to an author. 
Or if you just want to hear the latest news, the English 
Tea Room is where I go. And at night, Tony's. Or Tony's in 
the afternoon, too. That's a speakeasy on Forty-ninth 
Street. I know a girl friend of mine that went there one 
afternoon. It's better to sit in the kitchen. And this man 
was fried and he picked her up, and who should he turn 
out to be but Harold Kingston Schobel, the playwright? 
She's living with him. Of course that doesn't happen all 
the time." 

"What does a man do? Actors? What do they do?" 

"I don't know. The best way is to be a chorus boy." 

"That lets me out." 

"Yeah. Well, I guess it's the English Tea Room for 
you, Dick. I mean Hubert. Ruskin doesn't want you?" 

"For what?" 

51 



^-\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"For what? The Jumping Jack! Didn't he say any- 
thing to you about it? You should have asked him." 

"The play I was in? The son of a bitch. I could play 
that part. I was all right, wasn't I? Wasn't I, Audrey?" 

"I thought so. You looked the part, and you never 
went up. Not that it was Hamlet. But some people with 
only one line can blow it. You should have asked him. 
Maybe he thinks you don't want the part." 

He left her hurriedly and went to Ruskin's office, 
having no idea what he was going to say, but actuated by 
desperation. Ruskin and Sylvia Stone were doing some 
paperwork together. 

"Mr. Ruskin? May I see you a minute please?" 

"You're seeing me. Wuddia want?" 

"Can I talk to you?" 

"He means without me," said Sylvia. 

"Can it wait?" said Ruskin. 

"That's all right, Marty," said Sylvia. "I can come 
back." She picked up the larger of two piles of bills and 
went out. 

"You're all het up about something. Sit down, Hubert. 
Take a cigarette and marshal your thoughts." 

"No thanks. I don't feel like a cigarette. Mr. Ruskin, 
I did good work this summer, didn't I?" 

"Yes, I guess so." 

"I mean I worked hard. I did everything she told 
me — Sylvia. And I was often here till two o'clock in the 
morning hanging scenery. The next morning out with the 
station wagon, putting those cards in store windows. And 
I saved you a lot of money on that station wagon. I 

52 



THE BIG LAUGH 

cleaned the valves with a screwdriver one Monday when 
everybody else was taking a day off. And painted and 
varnished it. Not to mention I waxed the Playhouse floor, 
and a lot of other things I did that you probably never 
heard about." ^ 

"Sylvia gave you credit. You mean you want to come 
back next summer?" 

"Jesus Christ! Mr. Ruskin. Do you know how much 
money I have? Beginning Monday I have no place to sleep 
and no money to last me out the week." 

"Well, you knew that's the way it was going to be. I 
didn't give you any different impression. You were just 
the same as everybody else. Only three members of my 
company get paid, everybody knows that." 

"But I worked hard, Mr. Ruskin. And now I've got 
nothing to show for it. I can hitchhike back to New York, 
but I have nothing when I get there." 

"Leading up to a touch, Hubert, you're wasting your 
time." 

"Listen, I could have ruined it for you with the 
Shackle ton kid. She kept trying to get me to go out with 
her. I could go out with her tonight if I wanted to. I did 
everything you asked me to do, and Sylvia. And you're 
not even putting me in The Jumping Jack." 

"Oh, that's what you want. No, I have somebody else 
in mind for that. Somebody that can understudy the 
brother. You couldn't go on and play the brother." 

"Christ Almighty, I am the brother. Those are the kind 
of people I grew up with, and they don't talk that horse- 
shit way you have them talking. Have you ever been in a 

53 



JOHN O HARA 

country club in your life? If you have, you didn't listen 
to young people talking." 

"You want to rewrite the dialog, too?" 

"Somebody ought to. The part I played was just 
wisecracks, but the brother's serious. Yes, I could play the 
brother, much better than anybody you ever knew. If you 
ask me, you never knew anybody that came from that kind 
of a family. Except me." 

"The man that wrote the play is a graduate of Prince- 
ton." 

"Well, I didn't graduate from prep school but I could 
do better than that." 

"All right, do it. Write a play, and if it's better than 
Jumping Jack I'll buy it." 

"You're a mean son of a bitch. You know I can't 
write. But if I could I'd write something true to life in- 
stead of that slop." He stopped. "Aw, what the hell. You're 
all phonies. Every one of you. And you, you're the worst 
because you don't even recognize a phony play. If it was 
about the Civil War, you could tell it was phony. But it's 
about now, 1928, and you don't know how phony it is. I 
said too much, but I feel better." He reached in his pocket 
and took out some keys, which he tossed on the desk. "The 
station wagon. So long." 

Sylvia Stone slowly re-entered the office after Hubert 
Ward left. She resumed her place at the desk and put the 
stack of bills in front of her. She adjusted her glasses and 
picked up the top bill from the stack. "Lester D. Mead- 
ows, Hyannis. To repairing roof, thirty-eight seventy-five," 

54 



THE BIG LAUGH 

she said. "That was where a couple limbs were blown off 
during that storm/' 

"Quit putting on the act," said Martin Ruskin. "You 
heard the kid shooting off." 

"That's not my department, Marty/' 

"He's right about Jumping Jack." 

"So? When you go take in a show you pay two- 
twenty to hear people talk true to life? That I can get for 
a nickel on the Jerome Avenue Line. That I can get from 
my various relatives and their in-laws. Who knows from 
country club conversation? Me, forking over two-twenty? 
I make the trip downtown to take in a play, I prefer leav- 
ing all that behind me for one evening." 

"I don't know, Syl. He put it into words what I've 
been thinking. I couldn't put my finger on it, but this play 
never got across to me. Reading it, yes. Seeing it per- 
formed, hearing the lines, no. My own dialog, too. If the 
son of a bitch could write I'd give him a couple hundred." 
He slapped the top of the desk. "I'm gonna put him in 
the play." 

"Marty, don't do it." 

"Mind your own business, Sylvia Steinbrink. I fol- 
low my hunches." 

"Such hunches you should be reserving for the op- 
posite sex." 

"Listen, fuck you and your nasty innuendoes. All sum- 
mer you been hinting, hinting, hinting. Hinting what was 
none of your business even if it was true, which it isn't." 

"If the shoe fits," said Sylvia. 

Martin Ruskin got up and went to the door and 

55 



JOHN O H AR A 

called to Hubert Ward, who was halfway down the lane 
to the main road. "Hubert! Hubert Ward!" 

Hubert turned around and came back, looking down 
at the ground so that Ruskin would not see his tears. 

"Step in my office, I want to talk to you," said Ruskin. 

Sylvia was already out of the office and Ruskin told 
Hubert Ward to take a seat. "If Jumping Jack is such a ter- 
rible play why do you want to work in it? Tell me that." 

"I didn't say it was a terrible play. I only said you had 
the people talking all wrong, especially the brother." 

"Give me an example, for instance." 

Hubert Ward thought a moment. "I don't remember 
the exact words, but where he's talking to his sister. 
They're talking about their mother." 

"You're speaking of the first act where they're talking 
about their mother, or the second act?" 

"I was thinking about the first act." 

"Phyllis sitting on the piano stool. Ronnie is swing- 
ing the golf stick." 

"Yes, and even that's wrong, Mr. Ruskin. They're sup- 
posed to have just come home from the club. He wouldn't 
bring his golf clubs home with him, Mr. Ruskin. He'd leave 
them in his locker or in the pro shop." 

"Business. Not important. What I'm interested, why do 
you think his speech is phony?" 

"I'm trying to remember exactly what he says." 

"Here's a script. Show me," said Ruskin. 

Hubert leafed through the play script. "Here it is. 
'Ronnie: Unfortunately Mother is dining out this evening 
with Mr. and Mrs. Van Lear. Therefore we must postpone 

56 



THE BIG LAUGH 

our discussion with her until tomorrow morning. How- 
ever, you may rest assured that I shall devote no small 
part of this evening to a preparation of my remarks to 
her.' " 

"What's wrong with it? They're supposed to be edu- 
cated people. Rich, upper-class society." 

"I never heard anybody talk like that." 

"You consider yourself an authority on upper-class 
society people?" 

"The kind of people these are supposed to be, yes. 
Maybe not an authority, but even my uncle wouldn't talk 
that way, let alone Ronnie, a young fellow around my 
age." 

"What would he say, according to you?" 

"Well — I'm not a writer, but I know this is all wrong." 

"Make a stab at it." 

Hubert Ward studied the lines. "Well, something like 
this: 'Mother's going to the Van Lears' tonight, but 111 
give her an earful tomorrow.' Something like that." 

"He's going to give his mother an earful?" 

Hubert Ward put down the playscript. "Oh, I don't 
know. Anyway, why should I rack my brains over your 
script?" 

"What if I let you play Ronnie?" 

"Ronnie? Not the college boy? I'd give my left nut 
to play that part," said Hubert Ward. 

"You don't have to give anything. I'm giving you. I 
decided to take a chance on you. Seventy-five dollars a 
week, that's all it's worth." 

"You mean it, on your word of honor?" 

57 



JOHN O HARA 

"As a gentleman." Ruskin pronounced the word as 
though there were no t in it. "This is your first big break, 
Hubert, and I'm taking a big chance on you. You know 
of course, I can let you go if you don't make good in re- 
hearsals. You know that." 

"Listen, Mr. Ruskin, if I'm not any good 111 tell you 
so myself." 

"What I was thinking, though," said Ruskin. "It's a 
small part, but important, and in places where the lines 
don't sound right to you, you could screw things up. So 
I tell you what I'm gonna do. You wait and drive back to 
the city with me Tuesday and I'll get you a room in a 
hotel and you make suggestions how I can make the lines 
easier to say. I don't want the audience missing plot points 
because you're going up in your lines." 

"I haven't got any money. Three dollars and some 
change." 

"I know a place on Forty-third Street. Get a room 
there for six dollars a week. A lot of actors live there. And 
two dollars a day ought to carry you for meals and mis- 
cellaneous. That's fourteen — that's twenty a week 111 ad- 
vance you and I can take it out of your pay after we open." 

"I really don't know how to thank you. This is the 
greatest thing that ever happened to me, Mr. Ruskin. And 
five minutes ago I was seriously thinking about commit- 
ting suicide. Really I was." 

"Well, Hubert, don't do anything like that till after 
the play closes, huh?" Ruskin grinned. 

The play opened in late October and with the help 
of the cut-rate ticket agencies ran until just after New 

58 



THE BIG LAUGH 

Year's Day. It reminded one critic of Noel Coward's The 
Vortex and another of Sidney Howard's The Silver Cord. 
Percy Hammond said it was unpretentious, and George 
Jean Nathan said it was delicatessen, but all the reviewers 
welcomed back Hildegarde Finney as the mother and 
Alexander Woollcott thought a newcomer called Hubert 
Ward had possibilities if he would overcome a rather slav- 
ish admiration of Glenn Hunter. "Who is Glenn Hunter?" 
Hubert Ward asked Hildegarde. 

"You'll get there," said Hildegarde Finney. "Any- 
body that knows as little as you do, and has your luck." 

When the play had been running two weeks Hubert 
was having a drink in Tony's with Audrey and some young 
people from other shows. It was a Saturday night, the 
place was crowded. In the kitchen people were standing, 
and others were wandering through the front rooms, hop- 
ing to be invited to join a table. Hubert Ward became 
aware that one wanderer had stopped at his table, and he 
almost knew before he looked up at the man's face that it 
would be Phil Sturtevant. 

"Hello, Dick," said Sturtevant. 

"Hello, Phil. I didn't know you ever came here.* 

"Once in a while. Congratulations." 

"Thanks." 

"Something I want to talk to you about." 

"I know. But you don't want to talk about it now, do 

, -. 

"As good a time as any. Oh, hello, Audrey." 
"Hello, Phil." 

59 



^A 



JOHN O HARA 

"Isn't anybody going to ask me to sit down?" said 
Sturtevant. 

"You can sit down if you can find a chair," said 
Audrey. 

"I don't see any chairs," said Hubert Ward. "Phil, how 
about if you come around to the theater Monday night, 
and I'll have that for you." 

"That'll be a good idea, Dick. You won't forget." 

"I didn't forget. I just didn't have it." 

"No, you certainly didn't. Well, 111 be around Mon- 
day night. What's a good time?" 

"Eleven o'clock. You going to bring your lawyer?" 

"What do you know about my lawyer?" said Sturte- 
vant. 

"I know all about your lawyer. Getting a lawyer for a 
lousy thirty-seven fifty, or whatever I owed you." Hubert 
addressed his companions. "Big-hearted Otis, here. Sicked 
his lawyer on me for a lousy thirty-seven fifty." Hubert's 
friends stared at Sturtevant coldly, the thin bespectacled 
Shylock in the Brooks Brothers suit, the enemy of the arts, 
the intruder on a Saturday night at Tony's. It was the hos- 
tility of the girls that finally drove him away. "He writes 
for Time," said Hubert. 

"Oh, that thing," said one of the girls. 

"His father owns a flour mill out West," said Hubert. 

"He looks it," said the girl. "All that Time crowd. 
They push their way in everywhere and nobody ever 
knows who they are. They all have an inferiority complex, 
because they don't sign their articles and nobody knows 
who they are. That one's a perfect example." 

60 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"As it must to all men, death came fortnight ago," 
said one of the young men. 

"To newsstand-buyer Glubglub," said the girl. 

"A sharp rebuke to Times Medicine editor," said the 
young man. "God!" 

"What can he do to you, Hubert?" said Audrey. 

"I guess he could have me arrested. I don't know. Ill 
ask Ruskin's lawyer." 

Sturtevant did nothing. He did not even appear on 
the Monday night. But he continued to visit Tony's and 
to stare across the room at Hubert Ward. The two young 
men did not speak to each other. With the confidence of 
his first success Hubert Ward began to think of himself 
as a member of a profession. He was hardly even the most 
minor of minor actors, and yet he was conscious of some 
pedestrians' second looks at him when they saw him on 
the streets of the East Side, and in the theatrical district 
men and women whom he guessed to be actors and 
actresses showed definite signs of recognizing him. He 
wore a Harris tweed jacket and grey flannel slacks and 
carried a Malacca stick, and he took longer steps in walk- 
ing in the foot traffic. He had been mentioned with the 
other actors by nearly all the critics, and singled out for 
personal mention by two, but this limited publicity in the 
press was not an accurate measure of the extent of his 
acquaintance with the public. He had made his debut in 
a season when interest in the Broadway legitimate thea- 
ter was nearly at its all-time high, and anyone who had 
a job in a Broadway show was certain at least to be rec- 
ognized by everyone who had any connection with or 

6l 



■^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

fondness for the theater. One play, even so unremarkable 
a play as The Jumping Jack, had made the difference for 
Hubert Ward between being and not being show people. 
It had likewise made the difference to show people them- 
selves. Hubert Ward was working. Whatever he had done 
or not done before, no matter how he had got his job, he 
was working, and to all those actors and actresses who 
were not working, he was legitimate, a professional. He 
would walk past the lay-offs in front of the Palace Theater, 
men who had played in hundreds of vaudeville houses 
and — some of them — who were paid a thousand dollars a 
week, and they knew who he was, the young juvenile in 
that thing of Marty Ruskin's. Among his out-of-work 
contemporaries there was inevitably some envy, but they 
also felt a curious pride in his small success because he 
was their age and their representative on the current play- 
bill. 

Martin Ruskin was at the theater every night, and he 
always stayed to watch the curtain calls from out front. 
It was a small cast — nine actors in all — and the curtain 
calls had been rehearsed so that the players of the smaller 
parts walked rapidly from the wings and took their places 
in a row which ultimately included the entire company. 
There would be a company bow, then the smaller-part 
actors would move aside to give the center of the stage to 
the featured players. The biggest hand was always for 
Hildegarde Finney, but she had been a star in several 
previous plays. Unmistakably, night after night, the next 
biggest hand was for Hubert Ward. 

"You see? You see?" Ruskin said to Sylvia Stone. 

62 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Listen, I won't give you an argument. You were 
right. I can't explain it." 

"Don't you wish you'd of signed him up when I 
told you?" 

"Nope." 

"Well, I'll never get him again for any seventy-five 
dollars. He has two offers already." 

"He tell you that?" 

"No, he didn't tell me that. He didn't tell me any- 
thing, and I don't have him under contract." 

"Plenty of other actors, Marty." 

"Seventy-fi'-dollar actors, yes. And wait till this kid 
gets the right play. Jesus!" 

"Which he will have to rewrite the dialog?" 

"Don't remind me. He's a bad boy, Syl, but he's got 
the thing they call class, and you can't get that out of a jar 
of Outdoor Number 7. You can't smear it on, and you can't 
rub it off." 

"And that's why you got this crush on him, because 
he has class. Yeah? You better get married and start rais- 
ing a family." 

"That's your solution to my problem, eh, Syl? That'll 
take care of it, eh, Syl? For how long? And in the mean- 
while, what do I do tonight?" 

"You get drunk and go to bed with one of your 
whores." 

"That's right. Well, it's better than getting married 
to some poor unsuspecting dame. The whore I can give a 
couple dollars and send her home. A wife stays. What 
did we do tonight?" 

63 



JOHN O HARA 

"A little under nine hundred." 

"Not good enough. I guess the notice goes up next 
week. Goodnight, Syl. See you tomorrow." 

"Goodnight, Marty. Don't hang around, huh?" 

"Oh, I avoid him." 

"You'll get over it when the show closes, you won't 
have to stand here every night." 

"If it was that easy." 

On the closing night of The Jumping Jack Martin 
Ruskin gave a party for the company and about a hun- 
dred invited guests from the Broadway world. He rented 
a suite in one of the Fifth Avenue hotels because he 
wanted the party to have class, and since many of the 
guests were going on to the Mayfair Dance at the Ritz, 
most of those present were in evening dress. Marty's per- 
sonal guest for the evening was Tessie Gibson, an agree- 
able beauty from the George White show who found it 
almost impossible to pronounce r, and who compounded 
the defect by her habit of saying, "Right," to nearly every 
remark addressed to her. "Wite," she would say, nodding 
slowly. Her high, full breasts were so firm that they barely 
moved when she walked, and Marty asked her if they 
were made of cement. 

"Wite. Cement," she said, smiling, and looking down 
at them. "Cement." She was wearing a vivid red dress cut 
low. "Most people like 'em that way, Motty." 

"Oh, I like them, Tess. I'm not complaining. I just 
wondered, if I gave them a little push would they give?" 

"Twy it and see, why don't you?" 

He pressed his hand against her. "Yeah, they give." 

64 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Cu-yossity satisfied now, Motty?" 

"Partly." " 

"Wite. It's bettah if it's only pahtry," she said. 

Martin Ruskin looked at her. "You know, the funny 
thing is I understand you. Maybe that's a sign I'm a little 
coo-coo too." 

"Wite." 

All who were coming — the guests and the crashers — 
had arrived by one o'clock, and at two there was a good- 
sized exodus of the Mayfair Dance crowd, leaving the 
Jumping Jack company, the less chic, and the crashers. 
The character of the party changed at that point from 
a polite gathering of professional people to a drunken 
brawl. The three-piece orchestra — piano, trumpet, and 
accordion — played show tunes, and there was a good deal 
of singing, solo and group. There was some dancing in 
the foyer, but in the rooms the carpet discouraged it. Some 
of the men and women were in groups of four or five, and 
the others were pairing off in the interests of seduction. 
At about half -past two the first fight took place; the actor 
husband of an actress punched the writer of drama news 
for one of the morning papers, and Marty Ruskin told all 
three to get the hell out, which they did, together. A few 
minutes later an ingenue from a drawing-room comedy 
grasped the hand of a man who played the priest in 
a prison play and led him to a coat closet in the foyer, only 
to discover that it was already in use by a recently mar- 
ried leading woman and a musical comedy conductor. 
(The leading woman's husband was in Baltimore with a 
play.) Two chorus girls were busy decorating a middle- 

6 5 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

aged actor who was passed out on a divan. They put a lily 
in each of his hands and a rose above each ear, and stuck 
a white carnation in his fly. At 3:10 a.m. Sandra De Moe, 
the showgirl, emerged from the bathroom clad in a bath 
towel in front and a bath towel in back, which she held in 
place with her hands. She paraded through the two rooms 
and returned to the bathroom unmolested, but when she 
returned to the party in her evening dress a young man 
whose father owned a chain of theaters in Philadelphia 
bit her on the neck. He was thereupon beaten into in- 
sensibility by Sandra's younger brother, a tackle on the 
N.Y.U. football team. The beating and kicking took a 
little time, and when it was over many of the guests went 
home. The theater magnate's son was carried out of the 
suite and placed on the floor in front of the elevators. He 
had a nasty reputation anyway. 

The musicians departed at four o'clock, and now the 
suite was occupied by the bartender, a waiter, a waiter 
captain, and half a dozen people including the host, Tessie 
Gibson, an advertising salesman from Variety, sl detective 
from the Broadway Squad, the two chorus girls who had 
been decorating the drunk, and Hubert Ward, who for 
one of the few times in his life had had a little too much to 
drink. He and the host were the only persons present who 
were not sober. Martin Ruskin took a roll of banknotes 
from his pocket and peeled off three or four and handed 
them to the detective. "Thanks for taking care of Sonny 
Boy, Jim," said Ruskin. 

"Any time, Marty. Son of a bitch comes over from 
Philly and always causes trouble, without fail. One of 

66 



THE BIG LAUGH 

these nights hell get it. I only hope I'm some place else. 
His old man's a friend of Walker." The detective nodded 
to one of the chorines, the Variety salesman nodded to 
the other, and the four departed. 

"Well, wuddia say? The Clamhouse?" said Ruskin. 

"No, I don't like Hahlem," said Tessie. "I don't want 
to be stuck up theh with you two passed out. Too fah f'm 
home foh me." 

"Well, Dave's? A speak? It's too early for Reuben's." 

"Let's take a couple bottles of that stuff and go to my 
place," said Hubert Ward. 

"Wheh's you' place, Hubie?" 

"Sheridan Square." 

"That's the Village! Wite. Let's go theh, Motty." 

"All right, what the hell. Hey, waiter. Gimme, oh, 
two bottles of the Scotch and two of the rye. And here, this 
is for you. Captain. For you. Barkeep, take this." He gave 
them money, and he and Tess and Hubert Ward left the 
suite. 

"I'd like to see what kind of a joint you live in, too," 
said Martin Ruskin. "You got it alone, or with somebody?" 

"The money you paid me, naturally I have a duplex 
penthouse." 

"Make a deal with me and you will have a duplex 
penthouse," said Ruskin. 

"I can get one now without making a deal with you," 
said Hubert Ward. 

"Well, let's not talk money tonight," said Ruskin. "Let's 
forget about money." 

6 7 



^~\ 



JOHN O H AR A 

"Wite, at least foh the pwesent, Motty," said Tess. 
"Foh the pwesent/' 

Hubert Ward's apartment, sublet month to month 
and costing him more than a week's pay every month, was 
a large room, a bath and kitchen, with windows on three 
sides. It was furnished and decorated in restrained modern 
style and obviously not cheaply. "A woman that writes 
books," Hubert Ward explained. "Some magazine sent her 
to Europe to write an article, and I got it because I was 
known. She saw me in the play." 

"I think it's ve'y snappy," said Tess. "Look. Just a 
hand. And look at this. A little gazelle, isn't it? Isn't that 
a gazelle? And all ivowy. A lot of books. I like books. 
What's this? This man, he looks dead." 

"He is dead. That's a death mask," said Ruskin. 

"Oh, the pooh fella. What do you mean, Motty? They 
put a mask on him when he died? Is that some weligion?" 

"You want me to explain it, Tess?" 

"I guess you bettah not. I might not like it. I have to 
see a man about a little puppy. I'll be wite back." 

Ruskin prepared Scotch highballs for himself and 
Hubert. "This is better than going to the Clamhouse. I 
saw enough people for one night. Here's wishing you luck, 
Hubert." 

"Thanks, Marty. You too." 

"Oh, with me it isn't so much a question of luck. I 
make a dollar. I make a lousy dollar and I probably always 
will. I don't try for anything big. I'd like to have some- 
thing big some day, but I know I won't. My chance I had, 
and I blew it. I don't know how I blew it, but I did. The 

68 



THE BIG LAUGH 

biggest thing happened to me recently was you. You, 
Hubie. You're going places and doing things." 

"Maybe. I hope so." 

Tess appeared. "Fascinating in theh. She has a 
pictsha of two dikes and a young gil. Theh not doing any- 
thing yet, but all you have to do is look at it to wealize, one 
of the dikes is going to get the gil. The one ovah the bath- 
tub, Hubie?" 

"Yeah." 

"Who are you rooting for, Tess?" 

"Oh, I don't know, Motty. Go on in and take a look. 
And the man with his thing bwoken off. A pictsha of a 
man with his thing bwoken off. Ooh, I bet that hu't. Only 
I think it's a pictsha of a statue and the thing got bwoken 
off, maybe when they dug it up. One of those statues. The 
one ovah the washstand, Hubie." 

"I know." 

"The woman you wented this fwom, what kind of 
books does she wite?" 

"I don't know. I never read any." 

"You stop to think, all the pictshas show nudes. And 
ovah theh, that statue, the two necking and theh ready 
foh it. They got no clothes on." 

"That's a good start. When they take off their clothes 
they mean business," said Ruskin. "That statue was made 
by the man you asked about." 

"That old man?" 

"He wasn't always old, Tess. How about if you take 
off your clothes, Tess?" 

"You want me to? Wight away?" 

69 



~~\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"Sure. All of us will." 

"I didn't know it was gonna be that, Motty." 

"Do you have any objections?" 

"Hubie's as su'pwised as I am." 

"Ill bet if you start taking off your clothes Hubiell 
take his off too." 

"How ah we going to awange this? You just want to 
watch, Motty? I don't like two at a time." 

"But I heard you did, Tess." 

"Oh, that's why you invited me. I wond'ed why you 
invited me to you' pahty when you only met me once 
befo'. I thought I was just foh you. Ahn't you twicky? I 
think you want to make a pass at Hubie, is that it?" 

"Well what else?" 

"Wight. Now I unde'stand it." 

She stood up and got out of her evening dress and 
panties, all she was wearing, and ran her hands down over 
her lovely body, in which she took a nearly impersonal 
pride. "I don't think Hubie gets it yet," she said. 

"I get it all right," said Hubert Ward. He took off his 
clothes and let them fall on the floor, and now Ruskin 
stripped. 

"Motty, I think I like Hubie bettah. You haven't got 
any muscles, and Hubie has nice shouldahs." She held 
out her arms and she and Hubert embraced, standing 
up. Suddenly, as though a switch had been turned, she 
wanted Hubie immediately. Her good-natured quality was 
all gone and she backed on to the bed, taking Hubie with 
her. "Don't let him touch you," she said. 

"I won't, I won't," said Hubert Ward. 

70 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Go away, you di'ty faiwy," she said to Ruskin. She 
kicked at Ruskin, then lay back on the bed and embraced 
Hubie. "Do it to me, don't let him touch you," she said. 
When he was inside her she laughed. "We fooled him, we 
fooled him, we fooled him," she said. ~-\ 

"You lousy dirty bastards! You pigs! You lousy filthy 
pigs," said Ruskin, and he stood almost directly above 
them and watched and listened to their rising and falling 
passion and their contentment with each other that fol- 
lowed. 

"Look at him. He didn't like that," she said. She had 
her arm around her new lover's neck. "I stole you away 
fwom him, and now he doesn't want you any moah." 

"You horrible bitch!" screamed Ruskin, and he came 
at her with fists like hammers. She covered her breasts 
with one arm and her face with the other, and Hubert 
Ward fought him off. It was easy, since Ruskin's attack 
was concentrated on the girl and he did not defend him- 
self against Hubert Ward. Hubert Ward got a strangle- 
hold on Ruskin and pulled him away from the girl, and 
Ruskin now began to weep. His arms fell to his sides and 
there was no fight in him. Hubert released him, and he 
put his clothes on. The girl sat up in the bed. 

"That wasn't twue about me, Motty. Only once, and 
I didn't like it. You shouldn't believe all you heah." 

"Don't speak to me, you whore." 

"I'm not that eithah, Motty. Not weally." 

"She's a whore, I tell you," said Ruskin. 

"You better shut up or 111 give you a punch in the 
nose." 

71 



JOHN O HARA 

"A haw's bettah than a faiwy, Motty. And I nevah 
hea'd you wuh a faiwy till tonight you admitted it. Did 
you know he was, Hubie?" 

"I knew it the first time I saw him," said Hubert 
Ward. 

"Did you evah go with him? I don't ca', but did you?" 

"Hundreds of times," said Ruskin. "He's been my 
sweetie since last summer." 

"You lying son of a bitch," said Hubert. He punched 
Ruskin in the mouth. 

"I had him any time I wanted him, and so did any- 
body else. This is the easiest piece of trade on Broad- 
way." 

"Hit him again, Hubie. Don't let him say that about 
you." 

"Go ahead hit me, but that won't take away from the 
truth." Ruskin was now dressed, although he had not tied 
his tie. He put his hand to his mouth, looked at the blood 
on his hand. "There was a lot of talk about you and 
I, Hubie. Now I'm going to tell them it was true. You'll 
never live that down." 

"Huh. Who cares, even if it was true?" 

"Your people. Those respectable people you came 
from." 

"Get out of my apartment." 

"You kiss him goodnight for me, Tessie." Ruskin 
brandished an ivory statuette of a praying nun. "Stay 
away, Hubie. I'm going." He tossed the statuette in a 
chair and quickly got outside the apartment. 

"Now we got nobody to disturb us, dahling, and we 

72 



THE BIG LAUGH 

got all Sunday and all day tomowwow. I like you, Hubie. 
I honestly do. Honestly." 

Franklin Hubert was not one of the visionary sort of 
engineers. He had his degree from Stevens Tech, he had 
worked in the field, he had served his country well in the 
102d Division, and he came home from France and the 
Army of Occupation at Coblentz with the impatient de- 
termination to make money. All his experience and obser- 
vation had shown him that the real money in his profes- 
sion went to the men who stayed close to the home office. 
The men in the field, even the superintendents of the big- 
gest projects, were lucky to make fifteen thousand a year, 
and at forty Franklin Hubert had not yet been given a 
major project. The firm kept its 1917 promise and took him 
back at ten thousand, but he knew that if he got sent out 
to the Philippines or the Sudan or Wyoming he would 
never again have the chance to get out of the ten- 
thousand-dollar class. He could not marry and have a fam- 
ily — it was already getting a little late for that — and he 
would be running risks of bad health and accidents. At 
fifty he would be brought home, given a dinner and a sil- 
ver tray, and retired at half pay, with no family of his own 
and probably some physical handicap that would make it 
impossible to play golf. 

He therefore took a negative stand when the firm 
assigned him to a pipe-line job in Arizona. "But that's the 
kind of job we thought you'd like," said Ike Neidlinger, 
the engineering vice-president of the firm. "It's not very 
tough. Not very different from army engineering, and 

73 



^ 



JOHN O HARA 

you'll be able to finish it up in about eighteen months." 

"That's a year and a half, Ike, and I'd be forty-two. 
Why don't you let one of the younger fellows have a crack 
at it?" 

"They're dying to, but what did you have in mind? 
Pretty soon we're going to want something for our ten 
thousand a year." 

"That's only fair, and I can earn it. Put me in the busi- 
ness end." 

"Which end of the business end? Accounting?" 

"No. New business." 

"You want to be a salesman? That's what it amounts 
to. 

"I'm young enough to get around, and at the same 
time old enough to represent the firm. I came out of the 
army a lieutenant-colonel, and that's a pretty respectable 
rank, Ike. Most men my age stopped at major." 

"I thought your promotion was for bravery." 

"Well, it was, but no matter how I got it, I was a lieu- 
tenant-colonel." 

"Generally speaking, this firm never made a practice 
of going after new business. It came to us." 

"I know. But are you pleased with that policy? You 
personally? Ike, we could double our business without 
doubling our overhead." 

"You've thought about this, I can see. Of course our 
overhead has never been a problem. It's fairly constant 
from year to year." 

"All right, all the more reason why we should go after 
the new business that's coming up, all over the world." 

74 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"We're not J. G. White." 

"But in ten years, we could be." 

"Darn you, Frank, you know darn well this appeals 
to me. It's what I was advocating before the war, and now 
youVe got me stirred up all over again. All right, let's just 
keep this under our hats for the present, and 111 go to 
work on the other partners." 

In engineering circles the news that Stieglitz & Over- 
ton were bidding against much larger firms was taken to 
mean that Ike Neidlinger was at last getting his way and 
prevailing over the ultra-conservative policy of D. D. Over- 
ton. This interpretation was prematurely accurate: Darius 
Draper Overton had a stroke and died at a directors' meet- 
ing, and Ike Neidlinger was elected president of Stieglitz 
& Overton. His debt of inspiration to Franklin Hubert was 
discharged by Hubert's election to the board of directors, 
and Franklin Hubert at forty-one was likewise and finally 
on his way. 

But his enjoyment of his new status was almost im- 
mediately marred by troubles that afflicted him only be- 
cause they concerned his favorite sister. Kitty Ward was 
his only sister, but she was very dear to him and he al- 
ways referred to her as his favorite. Her husband, San- 
ford Ward, a trust officer in a Newark bank, was caught in 
an unimaginative theft of $100,000 worth of securities 
with which he had met some margin calls. He did not 
deny the accusation, he did not give any thought to the 
various ways in which whole or partial restitution could be 
made and the matter hushed up. He simply reached in 
his desk drawer and took out a Savage automatic and fired 

75 



JOHN O HARA 

it in his right temple. He had always been a weakling, 
Franklin Hubert had opposed the marriage, and the man- 
ner of the suicide was as messy as the man's failure to 
realize that the bank was more vitally concerned with 
hushing up the theft than with his penitent splashing of 
his brains. Ward's bond covered the loss, and the bonding 
company could have been placated by contributions by 
relatives and Princeton friends. But Sandy Ward had never 
in life given much thought to anyone but himself, and in 
like manner he died. 

Franklin Hubert could hardly bear to see his sister. 
She had always known he had never altered his original 
opinion of her husband: a snob who traded on two family 
names and all their distinctions and connections; a man- 
dolin player, a cotillion leader, who he was sure sat down 
to pee. It was a mystery to Hubert why Sandy married 
Kitty as well as why Kitty married Sandy. The Huberts 
were Somerset County farming stock, who had never 
hunted the fox on horseback and had moved to Newark 
only one generation ago. And Kitty was not a great beauty 
at any time in her life. But Sandy's mother liked Kitty, and 
at parties and dances Sandy found that he was always 
going back to the Hubert girl after dancing with prettier 
and richer girls, who failed to appreciate the honor of his 
attentions. As for Kitty, she loved him from the start, and 
she never attempted to explain that to her brother. They 
had a daughter, a second daughter who died aged three 
weeks, and a son, Richard Hubert Ward, named at 
Sandy's suggestion for the Richard Hubert who had given 
his life at the Battle of Monmouth. Great-great-great- 

7 6 



THE BIG LAUGH 

great-uncle Richard Hubert, whose portrait, painted circa 
1840, hung in the Hubertville, New Jersey, Borough Hall. 

Kitty Ward had anticipated her brother's dis- 
comfiture, and when Franklin Hubert kissed her she said, 
"You don't have to say anything, Frank. But I'm glad you 
came so soon. If I'd listened to you — but then I wouldn't 
have the children. The children and you. I'll be all right. 
Just hold me for a little minute, and then we'll talk about 
other things." 

Franklin Hubert fell into the habit of Sunday dinner 
with his sister and her children, and very soon he was be- 
coming a stereotyped uncle — with the difference that 
Richard Ward made it unlikely that a stereotyped relation- 
ship could exist there. Franklin Hubert liked women, 
and he found that the prospect of settling down with one 
woman became less inviting now that he could easily do 
so. Too easily; women wanted to marry him, women his 
own age and a little younger, who were attracted to him 
and apprehensive of lonely years ahead. Franklin Hubert 
became, in a still current phrase, an artful dodger and, in 
another current phrase, a confirmed bachelor, who got 
from his sister and her children all the family life he really 
wanted. The girl was no problem: she was informally en- 
gaged to a young man at Lehigh, a predictably solid citizen 
whose father had a real estate business in East Orange. 
But Richard Ward, in his uncle's private opinion, was a 
little prick. The day of his father's funeral he pulled out a 
pack of Omars and offered his uncle a cigarette. "Your 
mother doesn't approve of that, does she?" said Franklin 
Hubert. 

77 



^A 



JOHN O HARA 

"No, but she knows I smoke," said Richard Ward. 

"Then cut it out." 

"Who's gonna make me?" 

"You're going to be a great help, I can see that," said 
Franklin Hubert. 

"I don't see what smoking has to do with it. My father 
didn't smoke, but look what he did. Stole, and left Mother 
penniless." 

"Your mother isn't penniless. She isn't rich, but she 
isn't penniless." 

"Papa didn't leave her any money." 

"She'll have a little from his insurance, so don't go 
around saying your mother is penniless." 

"Oh, then I can go to Andover?" 

"I doubt it. But you can go to high school." 

"High school? With a bunch of niggers and Italians? 
Ihkethatr 

"Your mother hasn't got enough money to send you 
away to a place like Andover." 

"Well, you have, haven't you? I heard you won five 
thousand dollars on Jack Dempsey beating that French- 
man." 

"The sum was five hundred dollars." 

"Papa said you won five thousand. I guess he was a 
liar about that, too. He was always bragging about every- 
thing, just so it was somebody in our family. Even about 
you. 

"What do you mean, even about me?" 

"Well, you didn't like him and he didn't like you, 
but you were Mother's brother. You would have thought 

7 8 



THE BIG LAUGH 

our family were the richest and better than anybody else. 
I got sick of listening to it. All you had to do was com- 
pare our old Dodge with anybody's Pierce-Arrow. Now I 
guess we won't even have the Dodge. Have to take the 
trolley if we want to go anywhere. I'm thinking of run- 
ning away. I won't go to high school with a lot of niggers 
and Italians. I won't do it." 

"What you need is — " 

"Oh, shut up. Hang a piece of crepe on your nose, 
your brains are dead." 

Franklin Hubert provided the money for Andover 
and paid for his niece's wedding. Kitty Ward protested 
that every time he accumulated a bit of money to spend 
on himself, some urgent need occurred in her own little 
brood. Franklin Hubert had had the same thought, but 
reassured her with the observation that blood was thicker 
than water. He could not bring himself to add that it was 
also thicker than whiskey, which Kitty had taken to in the 
quiet of her lonely house. He pretended not to notice. She 
was alone most of the time, and the reports she got from 
Andover were not items she saved to show with pride when 
Frank would come for Sunday dinner. 

The hit-and-run accident was so outrageous and yet 
so much in character for Richard Ward that his uncle, 
even in the fury of his indignation, could convince him- 
self that Richard himself must feel revulsion. But Richard 
told Hubert's niece that old women were always saying 
that when they go they wanted to go quickly, and this 
particular old woman probably never knew what hit her. 
Richard's sister Hope, now Mrs. Albert W. Pierce, Jr., and 

79 



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JOHN O HARA 

the mother of twin daughters, stared at her brother. All 
the conventionalism that had been drilled into her willing 
soul, and that she had acquired in her marriage and 
motherhood and suburbanism, made her impervious to 
the shock that her brother's brutality might have con- 
veyed. She was seven years older than Richard, had been 
able to ascribe earlier misbehavior to another convention- 
ality — that of the nasty younger brother — but in the hap- 
piness and security of her orderly life she had no room for 
such a creature. "I just don't know him," she told her hus- 
band. "Is that possible? He sat there and told me these 
things, and it was like an actor playing a part. Just as if 
he didn't believe what he was saying any more than I 
did. But he did believe it. And I never want to see him 
again. I never want him to come anywhere near the twins. 
Or me. Or you. I don't hate him. I just — nothing." Until 
he was twenty years old Richard Ward's home was never 
more than ten miles from his sister's, but she never in- 
vited him to visit her, and saw him only twice, quite by 
accident. She seemed so preoccupied that he abandoned 
her to her dull husband and he-forgot-how-many chil- 
dren. 

To Franklin Hubert it seemed as though his sister 
had an inexhaustible store of patience for her son, that 
every new piece of wrongdoing by Richard found her 
ready with forgiveness and excuses. But perversely she 
was becoming more and more impatient with those who 
sought to help or console her for Richard's misdeeds, and 
when Richard at last killed a human being, Kitty Ward 
behaved as though her brother and her friends were per- 

80 



THE BIG LAUGH 

secuting her. She conceded readily enough that Richard 
had done a horrible thing, and she refused to listen to 
him and his perfunctory self-justification; but she lashed 
out at Franklin Hubert, cruelly and recklessly — and 
drunkenly. "What did you expect? You hated his father, 
you tried to stop me from marrying him. And you never 
liked the child, never. Nothing I did was right. Marrying 
Sandy, or the way I was raising Richard. You've always 
interfered/' 

"For God's sake, Kitty — " 

"Don't deny it. You always sneered at Sandy, and 
you said terrible things about Richard. Terrible things. 
Why don't you leave us alone? Stop interfering with our 
lives." 

Franklin Hubert was not a subtle man. He believed 
in friendship, in love of mother and country, of a man 
for a woman; he believed in fighting for what he thought 
was right and in helping those who needed help; in fair 
contests with husband-hunting women, in honest business 
dealings, and in taking defeat without grumbling. The 
war had taught him that bravery and cowardice appeared 
sometimes in unexpected places, that a quiet sissy could 
act more courageously than a Dartmouth he-man— a 
judgment that had been confusing to him when Sanford 
Ward had shown no courage at all. Nearly everything 
that Franklin Hubert believed in in his twenties lasted 
him all his life, and his sister's turning on him now 
wounded him because she had been brought up to believe 
the same things. The wound hurt enough to make him won- 
der why she had inflicted it, and he was conscientiously 

8l 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

dissatisfied with the quick explanation that she was over- 
wrought and quite possibly going through change of life. 

With so little equipment for analyzing Kitty's behav- 
ior — no more than brotherly love and a sense of de- 
cency — he put his unsubtle mind to work. It took him 
days, then weeks, but he found his answer: Kitty was de- 
fending herself. She was defending what she knew to 
have been an unwise choice of husband, and an unlucky 
motherhood of a son. Franklin Hubert was convinced of 
the accuracy of his diagnosis, and he never again at- 
tempted such an analysis of a human condition; but he 
was thereafter guided by this analysis in his relationship 
with Kitty in matters concerning her son. It helped a 
great deal. 

It helped, for instance, when Richard was sent home 
from Andover and from St. Bartholomew's, an undistin- 
guished "church school," and from Chichester's, a catch- 
all institution near New Haven that contained youths who 
were cramming for the College Boards and other youths 
who had no chance whatever of getting into college. It 
was as dubious a distinction to be enrolled at Chichester's 
as to be fired from it. There was a youth at Chichester's 
who graduated at twenty-one because a condition of his 
grandfather's will was that he must be accepted at Yale 
to qualify for a two-million-dollar legacy. But most of the 
boys had no ambition beyond athletics and nights at the 
Pre Cat — Pre Catelan — a Thirty-ninth Street cabaret. 
Richard Hubert Ward did not excel in sports, and by the 
time he reached Chichester's the Pre Cat had closed for- 
ever. Still, he did achieve expulsion from Chichester's, 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

which in the world of Eastern prep schools and universi- 
ties was like Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard; "The same thing, 
only different." 

Franklin Hubert met each new crisis with a calm 
that was born of his analysis of Kitty Ward's reactions 
to her son's troubles. He developed a method of conduct- 
ing these interviews with Kitty. "I'll ask around and write 
some letters, and we'll see where we can get him in. We'll 
get him in somewhere, don't worry," he would say. 

"The expense — I wish I could make him understand," 
she would say. 

"Important thing is to find a school that will take 
him. Never mind about the expense." 

"It's just not fair, Frank." 

"Well, I have none of my own, and blood is thicker 
than water." 

No mention was made of Sandy Ward's rich rela- 
tives. They had never considered Sandy as close as Sandy 
had considered them, and they had never indicated that 
they felt any obligations toward Sandy's widow and chil- 
dren. Kitty had never heard from any of them, and her 
brother was privately convinced that the scandal had 
given them a good excuse for keeping their distance. 

"If I thought it would do any good to have you talk 
to him," she would say. 

He would give her the reply she hoped for: "No, 
Kitty, that wouldn't do any good. He knows everything 
I'm likely to say, and it would only mean unpleasantness 
all around." 

83 



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JOHN O HARA 

Nothing, therefore, was said, since Kitty likewise 
wanted to avoid unpleasantness. In the summers that fol- 
lowed the Andover and St. Bartholomew's expulsions she 
told Richard to look for a job, but he said in all truth that 
he did not know how to look for a job. For a week or two 
he skimmed lightly over the Help Wanted advertise- 
ments at breakfast, but after breakfast, or before he was 
quite finished, someone would call for him to play tennis 
or go on a picnic. When she made good her threat to cut 
his allowance he charged golf balls to his uncle's club 
account and sold them as lost balls — Silver King balls for 
a quarter apiece, a seventy-five-cent saving to the pur- 
chasers — until Franklin Hubert put a stop to that. Rich- 
ard charged, and immediately pawned, two new suits 
from Bamberger's in Newark. There was nothing very in- 
genious about his methods of obtaining cash, but he ig- 
nored none of the obvious ways. 

Then, a week after he was sent home from Chiches- 
ter's, the long-postponed serious talk with his mother 
took place, and the only preparation she had made for 
it was to allow her anger to rise and to take a few extra 
drinks. "Take your leg off the arm of that chair," she be- 
gan. 

"If you're going to bawl me out at least I want to be 
comfortable." 

"You're going to be very uncomfortable when I get 
through with you," she said. 

"All right. Get it over with. I was kicked out of 
school." 

"Three schools, and every time it gets worse. The 

84 



THE BIG LAUGH 

second time it was such a nasty thing that I couldn't even 
talk to you about it" 

"But you can talk about this time, which is even 
worse? I don't follow your logic, Mother." 

"I can talk about this because it's something normal. 
The other thing wasn't even normal." 

"What do you want me to do? Promise I won't see 
her again, the dentist's wife? All right, I promise. Is that 
all? Now can I go?" 

"Sit down in that chair and wait till I tell you you 
can leave." 

"I don't see what there is to talk about. I was caught 
with a woman and got kicked out for it. You don't hear 
me denying it, do you? I don't know what else there is to 
say. I'm not going to try and fill you up with a lot of lies, 
because it wouldn't be any use. The only thing is you 
don't expect me to take my solemn oath that 111 never 
have anything more to do with women. That wouldn't be 
logical. If you want me to be normal, that's normal. But 
Judas priest! That wasn't the first time I ever had any- 
thing to do with a woman. Or anyway a girl." 

"What kind of girls have you been seeing behind my 
back?" 

"You'd be surprised. One just got married not so long 
ago and you went to her wedding." 

"The only wedding I've been to — " Kitty Ward was 
remembering, and she remembered a girl, twentyish, in a 
beaded Juliet cap, a veil, a smooth silken bodice. The girl 
was handing a tiny bouquet of stephanotis with brief 
streamers dangling from it to her maid of honor. She was 

8 5 



JOHN O HARA 

turning, this girl, with a confident, frank smile to the 
young man in a cutaway. And then a little later the girl, 
with the same smile, was coming down the aisle on the 
arm of her husband, and she had a special smile and a 
special "Mrs. Ward" that she made with her lips. 

"I don't believe you! I don't believe you!" said Kitty 
Ward. 

"You don't have to if you don't want to," said her 
son. 

"You're a filthy liar. The only woman that was nice 
to me." 

"Who? Judy Boswick?" 

"Her mother, you unspeakable horror." 

"I had nothing to do with her mother." 

"You spoiled that wonderful smile, that lovely girl," 
said Kitty Ward. She was not speaking to her son, regard- 
less of the pronoun. "I know you're lying." 

"Well, there's no proof that I am or that I'm not. I'm 
sure Judy wouldn't admit it, now." 

For the first time in more than ten years Kitty Ward 
slapped her son. "Get out of this house. Get out, and 
never come back. Take your things and go away. Away, 
away, away." He attempted to stare her down, to frighten 
her with a silent threat of violence, but she was unafraid. 
And he was afraid. He turned, left the room, and she 
could hear him in his room, opening drawers, slamming 
doors. Then his footsteps on the stairs, and on the front 
porch. She stood at the window and watched him while 
he stood at the curb. A taxi arrived and he got in, never 
looking back, and the taxi drove away. 

86 



THE BIG LAUGH 

She remained standing at the window. Across the 
street the rich new Armenian family were putting luggage 
and parcels in their Cadillac touring car. Next door the 
painters were busy at the MacBrides\ Two nurses slowly 
pushing prams were conversing in front of the Mac- 
Brides'. To the left of the MacBrides', at the Boswicks', 
good kind Amy Boswick was filling the bird-bath with wa- 
ter from a sprinkling-can. There had been a dry spell. 

Franklin Hubert could not find out what finally had 
turned his sister against her son, but he did not inquire 
very deeply. He could imagine that it was something so 
awful that it shamed her to speak of it, but whatever it 
was, sending Richard away had been an act of firmness. 
She had made a decision and acted upon it; and deci- 
sion and act had made her hold up her head again. He 
was pleased to see that she was going out again, taking an 
interest, having friends in for bridge, even planning a 
Garden Club trip with Amy Boswick, who had been so 
wonderful during the Sandy ordeal and the time Rich- 
ard had his automobile accident. It just went to show 
that a person can stand only so much and then you have 
to begin looking out for yourself. Either that or call it 
curtains. 

There were some unfavorable opinions of Ralph 
Harding's third play, Yours for the Asking. Percy Ham- 
mond said it was "less than a masterpiece" and George 
Jean Nathan called it delicatessen. But for Hubert Ward 
in the demanding role of Christopher there were only de- 

8 7 



^ 



JOHN O HARA 

grees of praise. Kelcey Allen said that Mr. Ward re- 
minded him of Glenn Hunter, and Alexander Woollcott 
said that Hubert Ward must now be considered among 
the precious few young actors in the tradition of Alfred 
Lunt; sprites who could do serious drama as well as com- 
edy without confusing the audience as to their intent. 
Gilbert W. Gabriel did not like to think what Mr. Hard- 
ing's play would be without the newcomer Hubert Ward. 
One of the Broadway gossip writers said: "Recommended 
to diversion-seekers: Hubert Ward as the mamma's boy 
(Oedipus Complex, to you) in 'Yours for the Asking.'" 
And for weeks after the first night Ward Morehouse re- 
ported Hubert Ward lunching at the Algonquin or the 
Hunting Room of the Astor, or simply at Frankie & 
Johnny's or in the after- theater crowd at Tony's. The New 
Yorker ran a piece about Hubert Ward in its Talk of the 
Town department, in which Mr. Ward related some of 
his non- theatrical activities; he had been a deckhand on 
freighters, surveyor in South America, life guard at Rock- 
away Beach, art student in Paris. He had never intended 
to be an actor but had thought of becoming a playwright 
and after making a few suggestions to Martin Ruskin, the 
producer had persuaded him to accept a part in The 
Jumping Jack. He was born, he told the New Yorker in- 
terviewer, in Denver, Colorado, son of a retired army offi- 
cer. He attended Exeter for three years, then left school 
to go to sea. He was of course pleased by the critical ac- 
claim, but was not sure he wanted to stay in the theater. 
He had refused all offers from Hollywood, and would 
continue to refuse them. "I want to get out and see more 

88 



THE BIG LAUGH 

of the world," he said. The interviewer commented on 
Hubert Ward's apartment in Sheridan Square. "I read a 
lot," Mr. Ward told the interviewer. "I'm a great admirer 
of Rodin, and if I had more money I'd collect ivory." The 
New Yorker concluded that Mr. Ward would soon be able 
to fill his apartment with ivory. 

A few nights after the interview appeared Hubert 
Ward was in Tony's and the New Yorker man came in. 
"Ward, you're a phony son of a bitch," said the reporter. 
"We got twenty-five letters about you. You're from Mont- 
clair, or some place over that way. And all the rest you 
gave me was crap, sheer crap." 

"You fell for it." 

"I fell for it, but I just wanted to tell you, you're a 
phony son of a bitch." 

"What are you going to do? Sue me?" 

"No, I think I'll tweak your nose." 

"See this bottle of club soda? You touch my nose and 
I'll break this over your skull." 

A waiter spoke up. "Now, now, now, now, now. Gen- 
tlemens, gentlemens. Not in here. He's drunk, Mr. Ward." 

"He's not that drunk. Throw him out." 

"Well, I don't throw him out, but come on now, Mr. 
Parrish. Don't make any more trouble now. Mister Par- 
rish, behave you'self ." 

"Crap. All crap." 

"My dear fellow, I heartily agree with you. Most 
heartily." The newcomer was a short man with a deep 
voice and an English accent to go with his tweeds and 

8 9 



—\ 



JOHN O HARA 

the Malacca stick that hung by a thong from his wrist. 
"Do me the honor of joining me, Parrish old boy." 

"You don't think I ought to tweak this phony's nose." 

"Under the circumstances, no." 

"Hey, Ward. What did Rodin ever write?" said Par- 
rish. 

"Quite," said the man with the accent. "Now come 
with me, Parrish." 

But most of Hubert Ward's encounters with press 
and public were conducted without friction. There had 
been no interviews after The Jumping Jack, but people 
who had met him during that period now claimed old 
acquaintance. He had some letters from people who re- 
membered him from Denver, who had known his father, 
Colonel Ward; who remembered him at Exeter when his 
name was Johnny Trapnell; who had known him in Paris 
when he was living with an English girl called Joyce 
Paternoster. In spite of the fact that he was not yet and 
contractually could not be the star of Yours for the Ask- 
ing, it was his picture that got in the papers and not Eliza- 
beth Vandermeer's. That old trouper could have played 
tricks on him, but the cleverest trick she played was to be 
graciously cooperative onstage and generous in her state- 
ments to the press about this boy, this find. Before the 
play had finished its run it belonged to her again: the 
critics and the feature writers were calling attention to 
the quiet strength of her acting. An anonymous writer on 
Vanity Fair declared that the veteran actress (upper 
right) gave one of the most satisfying performances in the 

90 



THE BIG LAUGH 

current theater, which had been overlooked in the en- 
thusiasm for young Hubert Ward ( lower right) . 

Her best performance, as is frequently the case, was 
in her dressing room, where she played the kindly pro- 
fessional to Hubert's tyro. She intimidated him by being 
graciously cooperative where he had been warned to ex- 
pect trouble, and after every performance he would knock 
on her door, have a cigarette with her, and ask how he 
had been that night. "You were good," she would say. "I 
have no suggestions. Just don't think too much about the 
play when you should be relaxing. Long runs are not an 
unmixed blessing when you're young," and he would go 
out gratefully, full of respect for an elderly woman who 
had an old Rolls-Royce town car waiting to take her home 
to her little house on Sutton Place. She had never offered 
to give him a lift, never invited him to her house, and of 
course he had never heard her describe him as a male 
ingenue. Only her husband had heard her say, "Master 
Ward is a little shitheel who'd better get in the movies 
before the people get wise to him." 

On the closing night of the play Hubert Ward in- 
vited her to his party in the back room at Tony's. "Thank 
you, my dear, but opening night or closing night, I always 
go straight home." She went straight home — to her own 
party, which was attended by her friends the Lunts, Wooll- 
cott, Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic, Noel Cow- 
ard, Beatrice Lillie, Alice Duer Miller, Philip Barry, Ina 
Claire, Jack Gilbert, Marc Connelly, Deems Taylor, the 
Damrosches, Jascha Heifetz, Conde Nast, Carmel Snow, 
William Lyon Phelps, Charles Hanson Towne, Walter 

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JOHN O HARA 

Prichard Eaton, Sidney Howard, Elisabeth Marbury, Ger- 
ald and Sara Murphy, Neysa McMein and John Barag- 
wanath, and the Edgar Scotts from Philadelphia. "Not a 
one of them will ask me what it was like to have Master 
Ward sitting on my lap for a hundred and thirty-two per- 
formances," she told her husband. 

"All I can say is they'd better not," he replied. 

"Oh, I wouldn't forget that I'm a lady," she said. "Al- 
though I'm not going to let Conde get away with calling 
me a veteran. Veteran?" 

Two days after her party and Hubert Ward's he was, 
as they said, poured on the Twentieth Century Limited. 
He had a contract with Paramount, and even before he 
arrived in Pasadena he was becoming accustomed to 
the designation: "Hubert Ward, New York stage actor." 
It took him two or three weeks to realize that the designa- 
tion was not intended as a compliment. In Hollywood it 
was only an identification, so that he would not be con- 
fused with writers, directors, cameramen, associate super- 
visors, hair-doers, film cutters, second-unit men, press 
agents and other such personnel. "Hubert Ward, New 
York stage actor" he would remain until the studio took 
up his first option. 

"Yow tell me what he's got. I wish you would please 
do me that favor. When I look at him I don't see a Wally 
Reid, a Charley Ray. I don't see no Dick Barthelmess. 
Those boys come across to me like typical American boys, 
typical, and don't bother me with gossip stories. I know 
all them gossip stories and I don't care. Just as long as 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

the public has a different opinion. But you know what I 
see when I look at this young fellow? I see a young fellow 
that if I look at him quick, I'd hire him to pose for Arrow 
collars. I see stills with him in them and I think to myself, 
a dime-a-dozen pretty boy and why does New York go 
to all this expense, railroad fares and all, not to mention 
putting him on salary as soon as he closes in some Broad- 
way play. Why do they do that when I can send a man to 
Catalina some Sunday and he'll bring back twelve gross 
of these dime-a-dozeners? But then I take a look at this 
young fellow in the rushes. This morning, ten o'clock, I 
walked over and took a look at the rushes. With all the 
takes there was about eighteen and a half minutes of film. 
But I didn't get out of the projection room till a quartera 
twelve noon. You know why? Because I had them run- 
ning take after take, over and over again. For what? Be- 
cause I seen another Charley Ray? Another Dick Barthel- 
mess? A Wally Reid? Like hell. I wish I did. This fellow 
looks like one of your typical American boy types — till 
you get him before a motion-picture camera. Then you 
know what happens? Evil. E, v, i, 1, evil. Bill Powell. 
Stroheim. Who else have we got that you always want to 
see him suffer? Well, you get the idea. He's gonna rape a 
sweet little innocent girl like Lillian Gish. Mae Marsh. 
Not your Louis Wolheim heavy. An officer. That's it! An 
officer! This young fellow is an officer, and maybe he 
knocks up Mae Marsh or anyway he foists his attentions 
on her, but is he gonna get it in the end? You want to see 
him in agony, he's gonna get it, the dirty son of a bitch. 

93 



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JOHN O HARA 

And now we got sound, you can hear him begging for 
mercy. 

"Why is this? Ill tell you why. Because the average 
person, they're gonna take a look at this young fellow and 
they're gonna trust him, because they think right away, a 
clean-cut typical American boy. But the first thing you 
know, they're gonna get the same feeling I got. I don't 
trust him. He's what I call shifty-eyed. He can't look you 
straight in the face because he's a shifty-eyed fellow. 
That's the feeling I get, and that's the feeling the Ameri- 
can audience are gonna get. Therefore I decided it's too 
late to make any changes in this picture. I won't hold up 
production on this one. But I want you to find a story or 
get a couple of our contract writers — not the highest 
priced, but not the cheapest — and put them to work on 
a story. I tell you the kind of a story I want. What's his 
name again? Ward? Herbert? Hubert Ward. Hubert 
Ward is a young fellow comes to this typical American 
town. He meets say Mary Brian. Pretty, innocent, good 
respectable family and maybe George Bancroft for her 
father. Or maybe we put it down South and let Miriam 
Hopkins play the daughter. Anyway, Herbert Ward 
comes to town and starts monkeying around with Mary 
Brian. She gets knocked up and Herbert deserts her in 
her condition. How we're ever gonna get this by the Hays 
Office I don't know, but we can skirt around as much as 
we can. What I want is to see this young fellow get his just 
deserts. I want to see George Bancroft give him a good 
beating. Kick the living shit out of the son of a bitch. 
Maybe Mary's really in love with Phil Holmes, her child- 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

hood sweetheart. I don't know. I just thought of this idea 
during lunch, but I'm convinced. If we can make the 
American audience hate this young fellow enough, he 
could turn into an American Stroheim. A clean-cut heavy. 
That would be revolutionary, and the foreign market 
would eat it up. They're always complaining about our 
stories, we'll give them something sophisticated, and at 
the same time hold on to our American audience. That's 
what I want to do with Herbert Ward, and the first thing 
we do is take up his option before some other son of a 
bitch can get hold of him and make him another Dick 
Barthelmess. Once this young fellow gets the hero 
build-up they'd be crazy to try to turn him into a heavy, 
but we have him and we can make him anything we 
like." 

Hiram J. Zimmermann was delighted to discover that 
Hubert Ward did not have to be sold the idea of playing 
a heavy; he wanted to play a heavy. It gave him a better 
chance to act, and he readily agreed with Hiram J. Zim- 
mermann that the public soon tired of dime-a-dozen 
typical American boy types. He was not always going 
to confine his acting to Hollywood, and when he returned 
to the New York stage he did not want Eugene O'Neill and 
authors like that to think of him as a Hollywood pretty boy. 
The screenplay by Martha Kensington, Joseph Hutchinson 
MacDuffie, and Ted Fenstermacher, with additional dia- 
logue by J. Frank Youngblood and Sara Jaffe Winston, 
based on an original story by Martha Kensington and 
Joseph Hutchinson MacDuffie, was rumored to be an 
entirely new departure for Hollywood, as realistic as any- 

95 



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JOHN O HARA 

thing Theodore Dreiser had written, and was likely 
to end Hollywood's dependence on plays and novels 
as the bases for scenarios. For that reason the in- 
dustry momentarily suspended the usual advance judg- 
ment of the picture, and the opening at Graumann's 
Egyptian attracted writers as well as the usual executives 
and stars, in a kind of remote defiance of Fourth Avenue, 
the Algonquin, Broadway, Sardi's, and all the rest of those 
New York book-and-theater snobs. After the Hollywood 
opening — that same night, immediately after — there was 
a meeting of executives at which it was decided to spend 
an additional $60,000 on advertising and publicity, but 
the realistic fact was that Dreiser and O'Neill had nothing 
to worry about. The picture opened on a Friday morn- 
ing at the New York Paramount, and on the following 
Tuesday the house was half empty in spite of Waring's 
Pennsylvanians and George Dewey Washington for the 
stage presentation. The picture had cost about $400,000 
and did not lose money — few pictures did — but Hiram J. 
Zimmermann was not given Nancy Carroll for his next 
picture, and with that strong hint thrown at him he set- 
tled his contract and moved to another studio. The only 
considerable gainer from the picture was Hubert Ward. 

Hiram J. Zimmermann: "Where I made my mistake, 
who the hell can predict what women are going to like, 
I ask you? Women. You ask the average man in the audi- 
ence how he feels about Hubert Ward and the answer 
you get is they don't like him and they don't dislike him. 
Whereas the women will come right out and tell you 
they don't like him, but that don't stop them from want- 

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THE BIG LAUGH 



ing to pay fifty-fi' cents to see him in a picture. Here you 
got a genuine paradox where they can dislike an actor, 
and I was right on that. But they don't want him done 
away with. The women that go for this young fellow, 
which is about fifty percent of your audience, not all, they 
don't trust him, they know he's a wrong bozo, but they 
don't want him done away with. It's the hooker in every 
woman, with very few exceptions. If they could sneak 
him in through the kitchen door, they would. And that's 
where this young fellow is gonna make his play. He'll 
never be big like Jack Gilbert was big with Garbo. If I 
had Garbo I'd never team her up with Hubert Ward, 
that'd be a waste of Garbo. Garbo you want real old- 
fashioned romantic love stories, and the women wouldn't 
want Garbo to end up with this young fellow. They 
wouldn't be pulling for him and her to end up together. 
I know plenty of women that would shoot you if you said 
they were queer, but you get them started on Garbo 
and I think some of them are queer without knowing it. 
And they don't want a fellow like Hubert Ward anywhere 
near Garbo. But he'll draw. You know what he is? He's 
perfect supporting. I'd always put him in with two big 
stars and I bet you'd find out that the women went to see 
him. Maybe they wouldn't admit it, but he's the one 
they'd go to see in preference to the big stars. He'll be 
working till he's sixty-five years of age, the son of a bitch. 
Nothing's gonna stop him. But he'll never be able to 
carry a picture by himself. Never." 

It would not have been an auspicious debut for most 
actors. Indeed careers had begun and ended for other 

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JOHN O HARA 

New York actors and actresses with only one such box- 
office disappointment. But Starstruck, Hiram J. Zimmer- 
mann's last picture at Paramount and Hubert Ward's 
second picture anywhere, had been produced in an at- 
mosphere of Art. Zimmermann had seen to it that the 
industry was told over and over again that this was going 
to be a different picture, that the industry had to be 
proud of it. The highbrow critics — Sherwood, Cohen, 
Watts, and Lorentz — were tipped off to expect a differ- 
ent, an artistic picture, from Hollywood this time. The 
boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl formula was to 
be abandoned. Willy Gropertz, the terrific German direc- 
tor, was to be given a free hand, and the critics were pri- 
vately advised to look for Gropertz touches in certain love 
scenes that were being sneaked past the Hays Office. The 
industry and the critics dutifully commented on Zimmer- 
mann's courage and Gropertz's naughty subtleties; there 
was a great deal of in-the-know writing which had to re- 
main obscure to the lay reader because Gropertz em- 
ployed several phallic symbols, the slightest mention of 
which was impossible in family publications. (One seem- 
ingly innocent scene had the girl shyly caressing a pillar 
on her front porch as Hubert Ward spoke the seductive 
words of J. Frank Youngblood and Sara Jaffe Winston.) 
For these and other reasons the picture was different. 
Willy Gropertz went back to Germany, and Hiram J. Zim- 
mermann moved out to Universal, but Starstruck became 
one of those pathetically numerous films by which unar- 
tistic people hoped to buy artistic recognition. Gropertz 
was especially bitter because five months after he told the 

98 






THE BIG LAUGH 

ship news reporters that he was convinced that Holly- 
wood was sincerely interested in Art, he was homeward 
bound and telling the same ship news reporters that Hol- 
lywood shtunk. In Hollywood, he said, an artist could not 
breet, which confused the reporters until they realized 
he was saying breathe, not breed. 

Nevertheless Starstruck was significantly helpful to 
the career of Hubert Ward. His first important picture 
had been an Art job, instead of a horse opera, a prison 
epic, a campus cutups film, or a Cecil B. DeMille specta- 
cle. He moved right into Hollywood Society, a curious 
combination of the powerful, the able, the glamorous, 
and, among the males, the wearers of the Brooks Brothers 
shirt. The actor or writer who continued to get his shirts 
by mail from Brooks after beginning to make movie 
money was somehow considered to be well connected 
socially back East, and in some cases he was. But Hubert 
Ward's connections with Eastern Society were remote. He 
had an uncle who belonged to the University Club, but 
he was not on speaking terms with Franklin Hubert. His 
mother belonged to a suburban New Jersey country club. 
His brother-in-law belonged to the Essex Troop. But those 
relatives of his late father, who might have been consid- 
ered Good People by a New York society editor, were frost- 
ily indifferent to his existence. Hollywood Society, how- 
ever, took him up without any investigation of their own 
claims for him. They appeared to like what he was not: 
he was not unemployed, he was not from Los Angeles, he 
was not a Latin or a Jew (the older Jews in Hollywood 
Society rebuffed younger Jews, even their own children, 

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JOHN O HARA 

who were old enough to go to parties), he was not a booze 
artist, he stayed out of the gambling that he could not 
afford; he was not actorish; he was not pugnacious; he 
would be miscast in a gangster part. On the positive side 
he was making pretty good money, he was of the theater, 
he had been given good notices in an Art picture, he was 
not confused by an oyster fork, he stood up when ladies 
entered the room, he danced reasonably well, he could 
read sheet music, he seemed ready to please, he was 
clean and dressed Eastern. Nearly all these new friends 
had themselves come to California in fairly recent years, 
but back East they had seldom known the type of young 
man they considered Hubert Ward to be, and they were 
eager to forget the hoofers and sharpies and pitchmen 
and shipping clerks and prizefighters and truck drivers 
and stool-pigeons and seminarians and rabbinical stu- 
dents and epileptics who were the young men they had 
known in their various pasts. This Hubert Ward seemed 
affable, but he was not liable to antagonize people with 
a sense of humor or to make them uncomfortable with a 
lot of serious intellectual stuff. He won many friends with 
his disarmingly candid answer to a question about what 
it was like to work with Willy Gropertz. "I wouldn't have 
missed it for the world," he said. "But sometime I'd like 
to see the picture with him and have him explain to me 
what I was doing half the time." 

In this company he was careful never to be contemp- 
tuous or patronizing of the industry. He revealed a genu- 
ine curiosity about the camera and the art of cutting, and 
when someone commented that he was learning the ar- 

100 



THE BIG LAUGH 

got quickly he said, truthfully enough, that some day he 
wanted to direct pictures, but only after he had learned a 
lot more than he knew now. In this company he could not 
have made a more generally flattering statement, and 
they returned the courtesy by saying that he had a lot 
of good acting to do before the public would let him turn 
to directing. 

He became a fixture in this group: he went to their 
Thursday and Sunday dinner parties, their Sunday lunch- 
eons, their beach and tennis parties. On his second Christ- 
mas in Hollywood he was astonished by the number and 
costliness of the presents they gave him, for which he 
was unprepared, having already sent out his English 
coach-at-the-inn cards to people who sent him gold- 
clipped billfolds, gold cufflinks, gold cigarette lighters, 
gold pencils, invariably from Brock's; and scarves, dress- 
ing-gowns, and other haberdashery, invariably from Pes- 
terre's. He wrote a note of thanks for each of these gifts, 
and so unaccustomed were the donors to any such ges- 
ture that they apologized for the insignificance of the gifts. 
Among themselves they remarked that Hubie Ward was a 
real gentleman; you could always tell; he had class. 

But he was not altogether happy with his status in 
the group: he noticed that when the men were having 
their cigars after dinner he was not expected to enter the 
conversation unless asked a specific question. The men 
were apt to be friendlier with him when women were 
present than in an all-male gathering. In due course he 
figured out the reason: he was the only man who was not 
an important executive, top director, or top-billing star. 

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JOHN O H AR A 

He was a junior officer in a senior officers' mess, as surely 
as though they all wore insignia of rank. He was making 
good money, he was appearing in high-budget pictures, 
but his name was not yet appearing on top of the titles of 
the pictures. He was now twenty- three years old, young 
for this group but not too young for top billing. He was 
getting to be known all over the world — he actually had 
a Japanese fan club, which sent him Japanese fans. He 
had a comfortable suite in an apartment hotel on North 
Rossmore; a Lincoln convertible coupe; and nearly $70,- 
000 cash in two banks. But he was not yet being taken 
seriously by the important industry figures whose houses 
he went to for dinner. It was annoying because he did not 
know what to do about it. His contract had another year 
to run, and the billing terms were stated in it. The studio 
could change the billing voluntarily, but he could not 
demand a change. 

He had a talk with his agent, Jack Golsen, who shook 
his head. "Sooner or later you want to stir up a hornets' 
nest, and with actors it's always the billing. Here you got 
a contract that at the present moment you're in the 
fifteen-hundred-a-week phase. No layoffs. You get paid 
whether you work or you're off nuzzling up to some broad 
at Malibu. You got fifteen years ahead of you before 
you're forty years of age, and you don't look to me like 
you're the type that puts on the blubber. You got straight 
yearly options for two more years, so why stir up a hor- 
nets' nest, Hubie? Two years from now, granted we rene- 
gotiate, and you bet your sweet ass we do renegotiate. But 

102 



THE BIG LAUGH 

leave sleeping dogs, Hubie. Go away and don't bother 
me, will you like a good fellow?" 

"No. I made five pictures since Starstruck without 
any change in billing. Do you know I got a fan club in — " 

"Aw, now don't give me that fan club. Or the studio 
either. The studio organized the fan club." 

"In Tokyo, Japan?" 

"In Tokyo, Japan. In Manchester, England. In Pratt 
Falls, New York. In Pottsville, Pottstown, and Chambers- 
burg. Get wise to yourself, Hubie. A live- wire exhibitor 
can organize a fan club for John Wilkes Booth, if he wants 
to take the trouble, so don't give me fan clubs. Why do 
you want better billing? Who put that fig up your ass?" 

"Nobody did. I think I'm entitled to it." 

"Listen, Hubie, believe me, things are going nice be- 
tween you and the studio. You stir up a hornets' nest 
and you be surprised how uncomfortable they can make 
it for you. They put you in nothing but high-budget pic- 
tures with the biggest stars in the world, but there's noth- 
ing in the contract that says they can't put you in low- 
budgets with some dying swan. One big credit after an- 
other and two years from now I can talk to them. I can 
talk about a lot of things, billing amongst them. Money. 
Billing. Time off between pictures and et cetera." 

"Selection of stories?" 

"No. Don't get that in your noggin, either. I'd rather 
you get somebody else to handle you before I'll try to 
get you selection of stories. You know who has that? No- 
body. No studio will stand for that, not from a contract 
player. So if that's what you're leading up to, Hubie, for- 

103 



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JOHN O HARA 

get it. I'll tell you here and now, I won't fight that battle 
for you or anybody else, because when I go to renegotiate 
I want to have a chance of winning. I'm in business, too, 
you know. I think what you need is a good piece of tail, 
something new that's maybe hard to get. Maybe you 
ought to get married, I don't know. Redecorate your 
apartment. I got my sister-in-law that will do it cheap. 
Redecorate, I mean. The other you wouldn't be interested. 
Maybe you ought to take a trip. New York, you never 
been back there since you come to Hollywood. The Is- 
lands. A trip on the Lurline. You ever been to Tia Juana? 
Buy yourself a new car. Spend some money for a change. 
A high colonic. You ever had a high colonic? Take up 
golf. What you need is something different, Hubie. You're 
chafing at the bit, through sheer boredom. I know two 
Chinese broads that would give you an entire new per- 
spective. You want me to fix you up with them? I give 
them a call about once or twice a year when I want to be 
real relaxed." 

"Mary and Nancy Lee? I know them." 

"Well, then all my other suggestions, but don't bother 
me with billing till two years hence. Show you what a 
good fellow I am, I'll take you to lunch. Levy's okay?" 

If star billing had been the real cause of his discon- 
tent he would have fought for it — and stood a good 
chance of winning. But billing was not his trouble, nor 
even the after-dinner behavior of the Hollywood powers. 
He did not particularly want to choose his own stories; 
he knew without Jack Golsen's telling him that he had no 
chance of gaining that concession, and he was at least 

104 



THE BIG LAUGH 

honest enough to admit to himself that acting was no 
more than a reasonably easy, satisfactory way of earning 
a pleasant living. Motion picture acting was the easiest, 
most satisfactory way of earning an extremely pleasant 
living, not to be compared with acting on the stage. In 
pictures the hours were longer, but he was not required 
to learn 120 pages of dialog, and if he made a mistake it 
could be corrected, and it was corrected. Between pic- 
tures there was loafing in the California sun; swimming, 
tennis, and even a half-hearted attempt to play polo; and 
the variety of acquiescent women who came to the North 
Rossmore apartment should have staved off boredom. 
Nevertheless boredom had begun to set in, and the list of 
suggestions Jack Golsen had made to offset it was rather 
like the cures Hubert Ward had considered for himself, 
differing somewhat in detail but similar in character. 

He went down to Malibu for the weekend of his 
twenty-fifth birthday, telling no one that it was his birth- 
day because he wanted no fuss and because it empha- 
sized the difference in age between him and the power- 
ful. By his early standards he was rich, and by any 
standards he was famous, but by the standards of the 
powerful he was young and not very rich. And he was as 
bored as anyone of any age. 

On this weekend he was the house guest of Charles 
and Mildred Simmons (ne Simon). Charley Simmons at 
forty-two was one of the six or seven most powerful execu- 
tives in the industry and he had made it on his own, to 
the extent that he was not related to any of the industry 

105 



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JOHN O HARA 

families. He had got into the business through his ability 
as a junior partner in a New York law firm, pushed and 
fought his way past the illiterates in several studios, and 
now was vice-president in charge of production at U. S. 
Films, Incorporated, which was in the business of mak- 
ing films rather than the business of supplying films for a 
theater chain. His wife had been his secretary during his 
lawyer days. They had a son at Lawrence ville and two 
daughters, who were attending a Catholic day school in 
Los Angeles. It was said of Mildred Simmons that she was 
half of Charley's brains, which was a complimentary ex- 
aggeration based on the actual fact that he discussed — 
"thought out loud" — every business move with her, as at 
one time he had discussed law cases with her. She sat in 
on the high-stakes poker games with the men, won fairly 
consistently, lost infrequently and in small amounts. She 
was a statuesque Jewess, a good two inches taller than her 
husband, strikingly homely as to face, but proud of her 
figure and extravagant in clothing it. There was not a 
man in the group who had not at some time sounded her 
out on an experiment in adultery; some of them had been 
drunk, some had been completely sober, but she had had 
more propositions than many of the famous beauties who 
came to her house, and when Hubert Ward as a newcomer 
to the group proceeded on the mistaken notion that he 
had seen possibilities that others had overlooked, she put 
him forever in his place. "Little boy, maybe 111 send for 
you some time I want you to scrub my back/' she said. 
"Only don't count on it." But Hubert Ward had not made 
a mistake in inviting her to his apartment. She had be- 

106 



THE BIG LAUGH 

come so accustomed to drunken and sober invitations to 
fornicate that she questioned the virility of any man who 
failed to proposition her, "I personally know he's a fag," 
she would say, if a man did not show interest after a rea- 
sonable length of time. Other women were afraid of her, 
since they could not discover any points of vulnerability. 
She made jokes about her face — "Alongside of me Fanny 
Brice is Rosamond Pinchot" — and made jokes about other 
women's figures. They could not gossip about her con- 
duct, and they could not hurt her through Charley, who 
was above temptation and always left his office door open 
while conversing with a female star. She was, moreover, a 
terrible enemy for any woman to have: ruthlessly vindic- 
tive, sporadically witty, and as the only female regular in 
the men's poker games she had their ear and attention at 
least once a week. She was not the social leader of the 
group; no woman was; it was basically and essentially a 
male Society, a fact which always seemed strange to those 
onlookers who did not know about the comparable male 
domination of Society in Eastern cities where the men de- 
cided who would — and would not — be invited to mem- 
bership in the cotillions, assemblies, balls, germans, and 
dancing-classes that separated the ins from the outs. In 
this Hollywood group the women spent the money and 
competed in the niceties of the entertainment, but no man 
or woman was admitted against male opposition. On the 
other hand, the women were sometimes influential in hav- 
ing an individual dropped, and therein lay Mildred Sim- 
mons's power. She could relay — or withhold — female gos- 

107 



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JOHN O HARA 

sip that the men might not otherwise hear, and she could 
be destructive. 

Hubert Ward amused her. Since he had not achieved 
full comradeship with the men, he spent a great deal of 
time in conversations with her, and they amused each 
other. He talked to her as he would have talked to the men, 
and she listened with lubricious attention to his descrip- 
tions of adventures with women. In time he found that 
this was expected of him, and he did not fail her. The 
girls and women were not likely to be friends or even 
acquaintances of Mildred's; she strictly observed the caste 
system of the industry, which meant that she associated 
only with wives on her own executive level and the 
actresses — stars, featured players — who belonged to her 
group. But this did not prevent her from acquiring a movie 
fan's knowledge of minor stars and featured actors and 
bit players. In the projection room in her house in Beverly 
Hills she saw pictures three or four nights a week, and 
sometimes she would nudge Hubert Ward and whisper, "Is 
she the one you took on the boat?" Or "Is he the one that 
has a girl on Central Avenue?" 

They would talk together and laugh together, and 
the married women in their group, who did not have to 
guess how he amused her, soon gave up any thought of 
casual dalliance with Hubert Ward. Among these men and 
women divorce was infrequent; it was costly not only by 
reason of the community property laws, but because it 
could mean radical realignments of interfamily, intra- 
industry connections. A director's wife was not only the 
wife of a director; she was the sister of the production 

108 



THE BIG LAUGH 

head of a studio, and quite possibly the first cousin of 
the chairman of the finance committee at another studio. 
Divorce, with a consequent redistribution of voting stock, 
was as calamitous as death. The women got the jewelry, 
but the men held on to their shares. Not even Mildred 
Simmons owned a single share of U. S. Films, Incor- 
porated, nor did she expect to inherit any if Charley 
dropped dead. 

The men in the group had mistresses, and some of the 
women took lovers. In the group itself there had been some 
— but very little — adultery, always put to a stop before it 
reached the phase where it could be discussed openly. It 
would be known that one Harry had seen a lot of one Joe's 
wife during a trip to New York, but when Harry and Joe's 
wife returned to Beverly Hills they were expected to have 
got that out of their systems. Harry's family and closest 
friends would see to that — and a year later Harry would 
be advising one Sidney to watch his step. It was not very 
different from Philadelphia, or the Court of St. James's. 

The danger in an affair with a Hubert Ward was that 
an actor, any actor, was always an associate member of 
the group, subject to banishment. A woman whose affair 
with Hubert Ward compelled her husband to divorce her 
could expect rough treatment. The resources of the studio 
publicity departments would be directed against her, and 
she might easily be left with an actor whose box-office 
appeal was not strong enough to overcome the personal 
prejudice against him. It was obvious to the women that 
Hubert Ward told Mildred Simmons all he knew; it was 
therefore not worth the risk to have an affair with him. As 

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JOHN O H AR A 

a result he had slept with only one woman in the group: 
Ruth St. Alban, twice divorced and a full-fledged star, 
who could not really see much difference between one 
man and another after the first pint of champagne. She 
was neither oversexed nor vicious; it was simply that cham- 
pagne made her complacent and the attentions of a man 
added to her complacency. She had told Mildred Simmons, 
among others, that she got very little fun out of sex; Hubert 
Ward, among others, had told Mildred that Ruth St. Alban 
sometimes fell asleep before she should have. 

With the other women Hubert Ward was polite, 
agreeable, noticed new dresses and hair-dos, and com- 
plimented them on the more obvious expenditures in and 
about their households. He could tell them litde stories 
about what went on on the set. Nearly all talk in the group 
had to do with the making of motion pictures, and most 
of the husbands of these women were concerned with the 
financial aspects of picture-making, high fiscal policy, so 
that Hubert Ward's stories provided the lighter touch in 
a non-stop one-topic conversation. 

The only other topic was the behavior of the stock 
market, and this inevitably was related to picture-mak- 
ing, film distribution, and profits and losses in the theater 
chains. The caprices of the stock market never quite 
matched the introduction of sound for conversational in- 
terest among the group as a whole, and during the 
current debate between the optimists and pessimists over 
the state of the national economy, the men were gen- 
erally agreed that the motion picture industry could lead 
the country out of the depression. Charley Simmons dis- 

110 



THE BIG LAUGH 

sented from this view, but his colleagues reminded him 
that he was a lawyer, not a showman, and loud voices 
were heard after several dinners. Simmons did not believe 
that ten, or twenty, or fifty smash-hit movies would solve 
the nation's economic problems and save the capitalistic 
system, but when his colleagues demanded to know how 
he would bring back prosperity, he weakly replied that he 
did not know what had brought about the depression, an 
answer which restored his friends' self-confidence. 
"Charley," they said, "you don't know any more about it 
than anybody, but you always want to be a little differ- 
ent." He thus for the moment escaped being called a 
traitor to his industry and his country. 

But he was disturbed, baffled, and increasingly ir- 
ritable as a result, and he was not looking forward to the 
weekend. He saw Hubert Ward's red Lancia coming 
through the wall gate, and now it was too late to invent 
an excuse to go away. The weekend had begun. 

It was Saturday, luncheon would be served at half- 
past two, the house guests would come and go as they 
pleased all afternoon; people would be dropping in from 
the neighboring beach houses and driving down from 
Beverly Hills and the Rossmore section. There would be 
actors and actresses and directors who were kept at the 
studios on Saturday afternoon. There would be letter-of- 
introduction visitors from the East, come to look in on a 
Hollywood revel. The staff would be serving food and 
drink for the next sixteen hours. It would all be paid for 
by U. S. Films, Incorporated, but it never failed to offend 
Charley Simmons's sense of thrift to see so much money 

ill 



—\ 



JOHN O H AR A 

spent on the same people, week after week, to no pur- 
pose, especially since he had originally bought the Malibu 
beach house to get away from those people. He realized 
that it was inconsistent argument to come to Malibu to 
get away from picture people, a thought that at another 
time would have amused him, but in his present frame of 
mind only added to his irritability. The only change at 
Malibu was more people got drunker there than they did 
"in town," as Beverly Hills and the old Rossmore section 
were called in Malibu. Without actually deciding to do so, 
Charley Simmons picked a cocktail off a passing waiter's 
tray. It was a concoction of Bacardi, lemon juice, and a 
dash of Pernod, so pleasant to the taste that although he 
was usually a slow as well as a moderate drinker, he tossed 
off two Delmonico glasses in less than fifteen minutes. 

"Charley, you with a cocktail?" said Hubert Ward. 

"Me with a cocktail. Don't you think I'm entitled, 
Hubie?" 

"Sure. Who better?" 

"That's the way I look at it. Have you had one? It's 
made of Bacardi rum and it has absinthe in it. You know, 
Pernod. I have a feeling they're probably stronger than 
they taste, but if it knocks me on my can I won't play polo 
this afternoon. Aren't you playing polo any more, Hubie?" 

"Are you playing polo?" 

"Christ, no, I was just kidding. That's for the goyim. 
Wouldn't I look great on a horse, provided the God damn 
nag would let me on in the first place. But don't you play 
any more?" 

"I never even got to one goal, so I quit. If Will Rogers 

112 



THE BIG LAUGH 

and Johnny Mack Brown want to play, that's all right. 
Will was a cowboy and Johnny Mack was an all-American 
football player, but the few times I played I had the shit 
scared out of me. What if I got a broken nose? I'd be driv- 
ing a taxi, or working as a dress extra. They wouldn't 
even hire me for that if I had a broken nose." 

Charley Simmons looked at him for a moment. 
"Hubie, you nonplus me." 

"What do you mean by that?" 

"I'm nonplused. I've never been able to figure you 

• 99 

out. 

"There's nothing much to figure out." 

"There! That's just what I mean. You don't truthfully 
give a God damn about acting, do you?" 

"About being a Barrymore, no. But — " 

"I know. It's a good easy living. But what if you did 
for instance break your nose? What would you want to 
do?" 

"You want to know the truth, I think I'd marry a 
rich woman." 

"You have no ambition to do anything else?" 

"Direct pictures, maybe. But the directors are all 
either ex-cameramen or a few writers. You wouldn't give 
me a job as a director, would you?" 

"Till we had this conversation, no. And tomorrow I 
probably wouldn't. But today I might. You know, you have 
more brains than you let on. A picture actor doesn't need 
much brains, but all the same it's a shame to let your brains 
go to waste, Hubie. God gives brains to very few people. 
Take me, for instance. Phi Beta Kappa, C.C.N.Y., and 

113 



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JOHN O HARA 

Columbia Law Review. Practised law a few years, then I 
got greedy. You know, this money was lying on the 
ground waiting for me to pick it up. But it's not gonna be 
as easy as it was. I think were in for some bad times." 

"You mean on account of the stock market." 

"On account of what the stock market is an indicator 
of. Don't ask me what caused it. It's too big a problem for 
me, it's too big a problem for the trained so-called econ- 
omists. They don't know either." 

"Well, I'm sure I don't." 

"I'm sure you don't, too, but as long as you don't 
break your nose you don't have as much to worry about as 
I do. You see all this? This house, the cars, the tennis 
court, swimming pool, all these waiters — hey, don't be in 
such a hurry, Jeeves — I want one of those Bacardis — 
thanks — I was saying, all this could evaporate in less than 
two years. I only make pictures, I don't have a chain of 
theaters and a big corporation behind me. If I got voted 
out of my job — and I could be — I doubt if I could get a 
good job with one of the big studios. I made enemies, and 
I'm making more every day because they don't like to hear 
the facts of life. So what would I do with myself? I'm out 
of touch with the law. I could be as big as Maxie Steuer 
if I'd stayed in it, or a good safe judgeship, life tenure at 
twenty-five, thirty thousand a year, not bad. But who the 
hell wants a flop movie producer? I keep telling Mildred, 
buy half as many dresses and put the money in bonds. 
Then she says 'What bonds?' and I don't have an answer. 
But any bond is better than two dresses at five hundred a 
crack. Five hundred dollars for a dress, and Western Cos- 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

tume won't give you thirty dollars for it. Mildred says 
I'm too pessimistic." 

"Well, you are, Charley." 

"Balls." 

"You're the smartest man in the business, you'll al- 
ways have a good job." 

"That doesn't follow. Some of the stupidest schnucks 
in the business have the best jobs, and they're holding on 
to them. Why? Because Uncle Moe married Aunt Reba. 
You know what a shegitz is, Hubie?" 

"I found out since I've been here." 

"Be one. Then you don't have to worry if you break 
your nose. Maybe they'll even let you direct. You know, 
I think 111 go up and lie down a while. These cocktails, 
and the sun, I'm not used to it." He put his hand on 
Hubert Ward's shoulder. "You're all right, Hubie. You're 
not a bad fellow." 

"Thanks, Charley. Neither are you." 

Charley Simmons laughed. "You son of a bitch, you're 
pretty fresh, though. Well, what the hell? As I said, in two 
years maybe I'll be glad to come to your house." Now they 
were joined by Mildred. 

"Where are you going?" she said. "They'll be starting 
to want lunch in a couple minutes." 

"They won't miss me." 

"Charley, are you drunk for God's sake?" she said. 

"No, but I'm not sober, and that's a fact. I'm farther 
from sober than I am from drunk, and I'm going upstairs 
and lie down a while." He left. 

"How many did he have?" said Mildred Simmons. 

115 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"Two, while he was talking to me, but they weren't 
the first two, I'm sure of that." 

"Why didn't you stop him?" 

"Oh, come on, Mildred." 

"All of a sudden he gets drunk. What was he talking 
about?" 

"Well, he said all this could, uh, evaporate. The house 
and pool and tennis court." 

"Oh. And losing his job, I guess." 

"Yes." 

"The damned stock market. Do me a favor, Hubie, 
and don't go around repeating this. You know how those 
people are." 

"Oh, hell, Mildred, he didn't say anything he hasn't 
said before." 

"I know, but he's saying it too often. He's giving him- 
self a black eye, all this pessimism. The important men 
don't like to hear Charley Simmons talking that way. It 
gets back to New York. And now getting plastered, 
Charley Simmons never gets plastered." 

"He's not so bad. He'll sleep it off." 

"I wish I thought so. Not just the getting drunk. As a 
friend of mine, did you ever hear any gossip about 
Charley?" 

"Women? No. Never." 

"You said it awful quick." 

"I didn't even have to think. I never heard a word. 
In fact, the opposite. Charley is one man in this business 
you never hear that about. It's the stock market, and los- 
ing his job. And the sun and cocktails." 

116 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Well, I don't know. I wouldn't mind so much if he 
played around a little. It gets offered him on a silver plat- 
ter every day, and they're weak, men. It may be on his 
mind without him knowing it." 

"You're wrong about that, Mildred. I'm sure of it. 
I'd have heard rumors by this time, a man as big as 
Charley. And you know who'd start the rumors?" 

"The women." 

"Right. If a woman was Charley Simmons's girl 
friend she'd like people to know about it, in Hollywood." 

"That kind of a woman, I wouldn't mind. Or like Ruth 
St. Alban. But Charley could have had much prettier girls 
than me, and with money. That's what makes me think if 
it's a woman, it wouldn't have to be one of these picture 
stars." 

"You're getting yourself all worked up over nothing. 
Man is worried about business and takes a few cocktails." 

"I wouldn't let him get away with it. I get proposi- 
tioned all the time, and if he thinks I'm just gonna sit and 
take it, I'm entitled to some fun." 

"I never thought I'd try to argue a man's wife out of 
cheating on him, but I am." 

"You tried to argue me into it one time. Maybe I 
should of given you a different answer." 

"You said I could scrub your back. I never thought 
much of that idea." 

"Maybe you'd be surprised how quickly I could turn 
around." 

He said nothing. 

"What are you thinking?" she said. 

117 



=n 



JOHN O HARA 

He slowly lit a cigarette, blew out smoke before he 
spoke. "How soon are you going to start lunch?" 

"Five or ten minutes." 

"Then after lunch, what?" 

"I don't know." 

"You shouldn't start something you're not willing 
to finish, Mildred." 

"Did I start something?" 

"Yes." 

"Yes. I started it with myself, too. After lunch you 
go on up to your room. I'll be there as soon as I can." 

"You wouldn't rather drive into town with me?" 

"Here is better. I'll meet you, and then 111 go and 
change my dress. That's what they'll think I went upstairs 
for." 

"But you're going to change more than your dress, Mil- 
dred." 

"I know, but now I made up my mind." 

His boredom vanished, the memory of it vanished. 
Their private conversations after so many dinner parties 
had in the beginning excited him, then had ceased to ex- 
cite him but had given him a larger understanding of 
her, which created a curiosity that was active without 
titillation. For several years now they had conducted an 
artificial relationship, man-to-man conversations between 
a man and a suppressed woman, and the inevitability of 
what was about to happen made the conversations seem 
like preparation. He waited in his room for her, and when 
she came in she made straight for the windows and low- 
ered the shades. 

118 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Who'll see us? The sea gulls?" he said. 

"Too much light," she said. "Another five minutes and 
I'd have made a pass at Eric." 

"He'd have fainted." 

"The worst of it was he was talking dirty all through 
lunch. As if I needed anybody to remind me. Unhook me." 

She made all the first moves, and they were thought 
out and well timed, none of it as though this was their first 
adventure together. She did not speak until they had fin- 
ished, and then she said, "How was I?" 

"Wonderful," he said, rather surprised by the ques- 
tion. 

"Now you know what you've been missing." 

"That wasn't my fault." 

"It wasn't anybody's fault." She lay back and looked 
at the silver-starred ceiling. "You want to know some- 
thing? Every man in our bunch tried to make me. All ex- 
cept Eric, and he doesn't count. You got what they all 
wanted, does that flatter you?" 
Sure. 

"Well, be more enthusiastic, for God's sake. The next 
time is your apartment. Charley has to go to New York 
maybe the week after next. If he got good and drunk 
maybe I could sneak in tonight — but no. No. Week after 
next, the whole night. You're quite a man, Hubie." 

"What the hell did you expect?" 

"Not as good. I feel wonderful, I hate to leave. But 
in an hour they'd miss us, and we don't want to spoil this. 
This is a laugh, getting all dressed again just to go down 
the hall. Hook me, will you?" 

119 



—\ 



JOHN O H AR A 

No one missed them, in any case no one among 
their intimates would have suspected anything after the 
years of their tete-a-tetes. His reputation was that of any 
heterosexual young bachelor in the industry, which as- 
sumed as custom the right to have as many women as he 
wanted, so long as public scandal could be avoided. The 
men in the power group did not trust him with their 
wives or mistresses or with important actresses for whom 
they had publicity plans. But Hubert Ward, though un- 
trusted, was believed to prefer the more obscure actresses 
and completely unknown younger girls, and to be clever 
enough to protect his associate membership in the group. 
He slept for an hour, then returned to wander among the 
guests at the pool. 

There were perhaps ten young children in and about 
the pool. They were of various ages from five to twelve, the 
youngest in the shallow end and on up to the oldest who 
were going off the elevated diving-board. Hubert Ward 
cared nothing about children, but he could identify all 
those who were swimming, with one exception: an ex- 
tremely blonde girl, seven or eight years old, who was 
a stranger not only to him but obviously to most of the 
other children. The Simmons daughters, who were ten and 
twelve and fully aware of their father's standing in the 
industry, came up to Hubert Ward and said, "Hello, Mr. 
Ward. Do some dives." 

"Hello, Wendy. Hello, Charlene, ,, he said. 

"Will you? Will you do some dives?" 

"I will if you'll stay out of the way." 

"We will. We'll make the other kids stay down at the 

120 



THE BIG LAUGH 

shallow end." The Simmons sisters officiously directed the 
children to the far end of the pool, and Hubert Ward 
slowly climbed to the higher board. This was one of the 
things he was good at. The board was not of champion- 
ship height, but it was high enough to repel most of the 
guests who swam at the Simmonses' pool. He walked out 
and tested the springiness of the board, waited until the 
hum of conversation was noticeably diminished, and be- 
gan with a swan dive, then performed a satisfactory jack- 
knife, and followed it with a one-and-a-half gainer. Ap- 
plause followed each dive, but after these and his earlier 
exertions, climbing the platform ladder was too much for 
him and he called to the Simmons children, "That's all. 
Show's over." 

He took a high-pile towel off the stack near the plat- 
form, and went to an umbrella table where there were 
cigarettes in a crystal box. A young woman was sitting 
alone at the table and she held up a lighter to his ciga- 
rette. "Congratulations. Those were nice dives," she said. 

"Thank you," he said. "I don't think I've met you." 

"You haven't. I'm Mrs. Stephens, and of course I 
know your name." 

"Mind if I sit down?" 

"Please do. I don't know anybody here, and I haven't 
spoken a word for two hours." 

"How do you happen to be here?" 

"That towhead is my daughter. We're staying with 
the Barleys, and Mr. and Mrs. Simmons very kindly let 
the Barley children and my youngster come over for a 
swim." 

121 



^ 



JOHN O HARA 

"Yes, I know the Barley children. I don't know Mr. 
and Mrs. Barley except to say hello to." 

"The twain never does meet, does it? Movie people 
and non-movie." 

"Not very much." 

"But at least now I'll be able to go home and say I 
met one movie star." 

"You could have met as many as you wanted to if 
you'd been staying some place else, but the Barleys — " 

"Josephine Barley is my sister." 

"Thanks, then I won't say what I was going to say." 

"I didn't think you would. This way I miss hearing 
what you people think of my sister and her friends, but I 
guess it isn't hard to imagine." 

"No, it shouldn't be. Where is home, Mrs. Stephens?" 

"Chicago. Outside of Chicago." 

"Here we call that 'back East.' " 

"Yes, even Josephine does. My sister. I should know, 
but are you a native son?" 

"Lord, no. I'm back-Easter than you are. Where I 
come from you're out West. Northern New Jersey." 

"My husband went to Princeton, but I've never really 
spent much time in New Jersey." 

"What does your husband do?" 

"He was in the printing business, but he died a year 
ago. Died in an aeroplane accident. You may have read 
about it, a transport plane accident in Michigan. My hus- 
band and sixteen others." 

"I remember. Tragic. Is that your only child?" 

"Yes. She's nearly seven." 

122 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"She's a beautiful child. Coloring." 

"I suppose she'll get darker. Children as fair as she is 
usually do. But don't let me keep you, Mr. Ward. You 
have your friends, and I think those children must be 
waterlogged by this time." 

"Oh, I'm enjoying myself." 

"Are you? I am, but I don't think you are. Do you 
work terribly hard?" 

"Not really. Why?" 

"You only did three dives, but you seem very tired." 

"I'm not tired, Mrs. Stephens. I'm just God damn 
bored. Not at this moment, but when you leave I will be." 

"Bored? At your age? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?" 

"Exactly twenty-five. Couldn't be more exactly." 

"Then why don't you pack up and go away? Go tiger- 
hunting in India or something like that. And yet — you'd 
probably be just as bored there after a while. I know." 

"Oh, there you are!" The voice was Mildred Sim- 
mons's. "They said you were doing some dives. How do 
you do, I'm Mrs. Simmons, Mrs. Charles Simmons." 

"This is Mrs. Stephens, her sister is Mrs. Barley," said 
Hubert Ward. 

The possessive hand that Mildred Simmons placed on 
Hubert Ward's shoulder . . . "How do you do. It's awfully 
nice of you to let us use your pool." 

"Oh, we don't mind, if it gives them pleasure." 

"It certainly does that, but I think they've had 
enough of it for one day." The possessive hand on Hubert 
Ward's shoulder. 

123 






JOHN O HARA 

"Give my regards to your sister, Mrs. Barley. Tell her 
she shouldn't be such strangers, she and Mr. Barley. They 
can come over and have a dip any time, tell them." 

"Oh, I think they impose enough as it is." 

"Christmas they sent us — you see that rubber float? 
They sent that to Charley and I for Christmas. If you're 
not doing anything tonight, we're entertaining about thirty 
or forty couples. You and your husband bring Josephine 
and Dwight." 

"Well, thank you. I'll tell them. I have no idea what 
their plans are, but I know they'll appreciate — " 

"Just tell them it's nothing formal. If Dwight has his 
Tux, but some of the men don't all wear Tux." 

The possessive hand gripping Hubert Ward's shoul- 
der. "I'll tell them. Thanks again, and goodbye, Mr. Ward. 
Mrs. Simmons." She gathered the children and departed. 

"Kind of a wish-washy dame," said Mildred Simmons. 
"How'd you get talking to her?" 

"She lit a cigarette for me." 

"Oh, I know that type." 

"The type that lights cigarettes?" 

"That supposed to be sarcastic?" 

"No, but I'll bet she's the only one here that guesses 
where we were an hour ago." 

"I wouldn't be surprised. Her type — she's probably 
like Ruth St. Alban, only Ruth at least gets in the hay. 
This one just goes around lighting cigarettes. Very sym- 
bolic, if you know what I mean. Why would she guess 
about us? Why do you say that?" 

"Your hand on my shoulder." 

124 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Do you object to that, considering where else it 
was?" 

"No, but I saw her give us a quick look." 

"What do we have to worry about her and her quick 
looks? But you're right. Charley 'd notice that right away." 

"You bet he would, and so would a lot of others. Is he 
awake yet?" 

She half smiled. "He was awake, but I guess he went 
back to sleep again." 

"Did you put him to sleep, Mildred?" 

"You might say that. He woke up when I went in the 
room. And he's my husband." 

"Was he wonderful?" 

"He's always good. The little son of a bitch, I just 
wonder who he's got. But I'll find out. He wants to know 
will I go to New York with him, and I'm sure he's covering 
up. 

"Do you know why he asked you to go to New York?" 

"I figure because he has a girl in L. A." 

"No. If you want to know what I think, I think he's 
getting all worked up and he wants you with him." 

"Well, he picked the wrong time, didn't he? We 
can have a whole week." 

"Half a week. I start shooting a week from Thursday." 

"Well, okay. Tonight I was thinking, what if I said I 
was going over to Marion's? We could leave here around 
twelve o'clock and drive into town. If we're back here at 
five, they'll still be playing cards, Charley and the others." 

"What makes you want to take a chance like that?" 

"I don't know. I guess because I never took a chance 

125 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

before, all the time Charley and I been married. But if he 
wants to take chances, I'm getting as much fun out of it 
as he is. You know, we'll be married nineteen years in Jan- 
uary. January the eighth. And today it was like when I 
used to live on 151st Street before we moved. I had an 
Irish cop that I used to love him up in the super's closet, 
in the hallway. I was a virgin when I married Charley, but 
with my shape a lot of boys used to want to love me up, 
and this Irish cop. Certain weeks he was on duty from four 
to midnight, and I used to tell my people I was going down- 
stairs to my girl friend, to help her with her homework. 
When I was nineteen I started going to business and I 
was with the firm when they took on Charley. After that 
it was nobody but Charley, but I remembered when I 
used to meet that cop. We shoulda been caught a thou- 
sand times but we never were. Terence McGlatty. A no- 
good Irish bastard when you stop to realize. And that sub- 
way, all the way to 149th Street every night, five nights 
a week. Boys. Young men. Old men. All colors, shapes and 
sizes. The summertime was the worst, but the winttatime 
was bad enough, because I was head over heels in love 
with Charley Simmons, Mr. S. J. Feinberg's new protege." 

"And you're not now?" 

"Who said I'm not? But he came to the conclusion he 
wanted to have a little fun? All right. 7 have a little fun. 
With me it'll always be Charley. That I guarantee you. 
But not revealing my age, but I have a nearly seventeen- 
year-old son. You know. Maybe I ought to be thankful 
to Charley for starting it. Maybe he's doing me a favor, 
unbeknownst to him." 

126 



THE BIG LAUGH 

Hubert Ward laughed. "You make up your mind about 
a thing, and nothing can convince you otherwise. But you 
haven't got a single fact to go on." 

"That would stand up in court, no. But a circum- 
stantial case, believe me. And woman's instinct." 

"Woman's suspicions." 

"Show me the difference. What about your Mrs. 
Stephens? Was that instinct or suspicions?" 

"Okay. You win, I guess." 

She had not won, in the sense of changing his belief 
that Charley Simmons was faithful to her. But argument 
was futile and, in the new circumstances, silly. If she 
wanted to have an affair, and wanted to justify it by call- 
ing it revenge, that was her decision. It was reassuring 
to hear her say that it would always be Charley, for at the 
present moment he did not like her very much. He would 
go back to her again, in hours or in days, but at the mo- 
ment he did not like her very much at all, and he was 
glad when she wandered away to sit under another um- 
brella. He sat alone, with a comfortable feeling of posses- 
sion of her and of her future availability, and the certain 
knowledge that in her own interests she would avoid be- 
ing a troublemaker. 

He told a waiter to bring him a fruit lemonade, and 
he sat in the beach chair with his eyes closed and his legs 
stretched out, getting the last of the afternoon sun. He 
opened his eyes when a beach chair scraped the concrete 
near him, but it was not the waiter; it was Charley Sim- 
mons. 

Charley was dressed in a white gabardine suit, black 

127 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

and white wing-tip shoes, dark blue shirt, plain white 
four-in-hand necktie. He was carrying a newly lighted 
cigar. " 'D you have a swim?" said Charley. 

"In and out," said Hubert Ward. 

"You don't get much of a view from our bedroom. 
You can see Santa Monica Bay, but for instance you can't 
look down and see who's in the pool." He pointed with his 
cigar. "You see what I mean? Our room is set too far back 
there. Mildred and I talk about using the roof of the din- 
ingroom for a kind of a second-story sun porch. Wouldn't 
cost only a few hundred bucks, and there's all that roof 
space going to waste and obstructing the view." 

"Yes, it'd make a good sun porch. And that space 
does go to waste," said Hubert Ward. 

The waiter brought the tall glass and stood by. 

"What are you drinking, Hubie?" said Charley Sim- 
mons. 

"This is a fruit lemonade." 

"Plain? It isn't spiked or anything?" 

"If it is, it goes back. I'm not much of a drinker." 

"I'm not either, but — waiter, give me something like 
Mr. Ward's drink only with Bacardi rum in it." 

"This is pretty sweet, Charley. Why don't you let him 
fix you a Tom Collins made of rum?" 

"All right. Bring me that, waiter. A Tom Collins made 
with Bacardi rum." 

"Yes sir." The waiter departed. 

"I was asleep and Mildred came in to change her 
dress. We had a few minutes' conversation but then I 
went back to sleep again. I had a cup of coffee before I 

128 



THE BIG LAUGH 

came downstairs. You never smoke cigars, do you, Hubie?" 

"Very seldom." 

"Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to die of cancer from 
cigars. I understand he was what they call a dry smoker, 
never lit them." 

"I didn't know that." 

"Well, that's what I heard," said Charley. "I don't 
know much about Grant myself. He had a pretty sad life, 
I know that much. I never been able to pass judgment on 
him, whether he was a crook at heart or was just taken by 
his so-called friends." 

"How was he taken?" 

"Oh, it's a long story if you don't remember your 
American history. But there was a fellow that was a great 
general, and then he got to be President of the United 
States. You'd think when you got to be that high up — but 
then we had Harding only a few years ago. Grant would 
have been all right if he'd stuck to the army, and Harding 
was nothing but a small-town newspaper publisher. What 
the hell am I doing in the picture business?" 

"Well, as Herman Mankiewicz says, making a lousy 
fortune." 

"That's all right for Mank to say. Writers can afford 
to be wisecrackers. But I could have been something else 
besides what I am, and my wife and children would have 
been just as well off. What does Mildred get out of all 
this crap? And sending my kids to private schools, for 
what? I got Harold at Lawrenceville and he says he wants 
to go to Yale. A Jewish Dink Stover I got. I got my girls at 
a Catholic school, and I said to one of them the other 

129 



JOHN O HARA 

day, 'What's that you're singing?' And she says, 'Macula 
non est in te' Macula non est in te, for Christ's sakel 
Sin is not in you, I translate it. Wendy hates the school, 
because all that religion around her makes her feel like an 
outcast. Charlene loves it and says she wants to be a nun. 
So who wins? I ask you. Wendy's miserable, and Charlene 
makes me miserable. But it's the best school we could get 
them in. The worst of it is, the whole structure is liable to 
collapse, and 111 be a forty-three-year-old ex-lawyer look- 
ing for a job. I'll go in to see my old boss, S. J. Feinberg, 
the advisor to kings and presidents, and 111 say, 'Well, Mr. 
Feinberg, can you use a fellow that knows all about the 
Dunning Process?' You know what hell say. His dunning 
and my Dunning might as well be two different lan- 
guages." 

"Charley, you've just got the blues." 

"You never spoke a truer word. Well, here's my drink. 
Waiter, take this cigar and throw it away some place. 
When a seventy-five-cent cigar tastes like an El Ropo, 111 
have one of these cigarettes." 

"Charley, why don't you go away some place? Go 
tiger-hunting in India, for instance?" 

"For a change, you're suggesting? Be a change, all 
right. Take Clive Brook with me, huh? Him and C. Aubrey 
Smith and I, on top of an elephant? Hubie, I'll give you 
credit for some imagination. You know what I'd see if I 
went to India? Millions of half-naked Hindus, bathing 
in the Ganges River and begging for alms, and every min- 
ute I'd be wondering when it's going to happen to this 
country. I know a fellow, when he gets the blues he has 

130 



THE BIG LAUGH 

these two Chinese girls, but that's not my trouble, and if 
Mildred ever found out, what explanation could I offer? 
I've been to a lot of conventions, and for a joke the fel- 
lows used to hide a naked broad in my closet, but that's 
af a convention, and I don't have to go to them any more. 
I guess if I had a piece of tail with five different dames in 
nineteen years I've been married to Mildred — five at 
the outside. This is confidential, Hubie. You understand 
that." 

"Sure." 

"It never bothered me. After one experience I always 
leave the door open in my office. That was a young kid 
that she's a star now, but then she used to think if you got 
inside a producer's office you had to give. Big star now, 
and one of my best friends. Goes around telling people 
I'm the only decent man in the whole business, simply be- 
cause I only wanted her for a part in a picture, not for a 
piece of gash. Doris Arlington." 

"You passed that up?" 

"I never even told Mildred, but Doris did. She told 
Mildred that I was the one guy that could be trusted in 
the whole business. No, that never bothered me. I was 
never a chaser. I was in this business to make money, 
pure and simple. I don't mean that as a gag. But the money 
isn't going to be there much longer, Hubie. Pictures are 
costing so much more and at the same time the public 
don't have the money to spend, so you get less back on a 
bigger investment. In plain language, you lose money. 
And yet at the same time you don't know which way to 
turn. What are they going to want, the public? Stars. The 

131 



^ 



JOHN O HARA 

biggest names. But the money you have to pay them — if 
you can get them! And making as few pictures as I do, you 
can't afford to miss. I'll pay good money for a story by W. 
Somerset Maugham or Louis Bromfield, and 111 go as high 
as I can for a star. But I can still have a flop picture, 
if enough people don't go to the ticket window. And the 
biggest flop will be me, Charley Simmons. One thing I'll 
never do is borrow money on my insurance." 

"I haven't got any insurance." 

"The insurance companies will be the last to go. A 
lot of banks are going, but you don't read about insurance 
companies folding up. I carry a hell of a lot of it." 

"Well, I haven't got any dependents." 

"Oh, hell, you'll be all right. You're young and 
healthy." 

"Yeah." 

"Keep drinking that fruit juice, and take your time 
about getting married. But don't count on marrying a rich 
dame. There may not be any rich dames, Hubie. This is 
only the beginning." 

"The beginning of the end, you mean?" 

"It's no joke, Hubie. Babson, Fisher, I don't care who 
you read. They don't tell me anything good." 

"Then I won't read them, and I never heard of them 
anyway." 

"I have to read them, just to torture myself." 

"Charley, maybe you ought to just get drunk for a 
couple of days." 

"I'll give that a try, tonight. But I have to be at the 
studio Monday morning." 

132 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Take Monday off. You're the boss." 
"That's just the trouble . . . Well, we got some new 
customers, and you better get some clothes on. Catch a 
mean cold down here, and you start shooting pretty 
soon, I read somewhere." 
"Week from Thursday." 

"I'll be in New York. Pardon me, Hubie. Ruth and 
Eric- 
He walked away a few steps, then came back and got 
his drink. He made no little joke about it, he said noth- 
ing at all. 

Darkness came swiftly, and the poolside activity 
ended abruptly. Some of the house guests went to their 
rooms to change for dinner; some lingered downstairs. 
There was a bridge game going on, and four men were 
at the billiard table, playing pill pool. This was the hiatus 
between the day party and the night party that was to 
come. Servants moved about, removing furniture that had 
to do with the day party and putting in place the furniture 
that was appropriate to the night party. They put away 
towels and chairs and umbrellas, and set up the small 
tables for the dinner party. With the darkness came damp- 
ness, so that no one would sit outside during the night 
party without spoiling a dress or soaking an evening suit. 
The servants completely ignored the bridge and pool 
players, who, if they wanted a drink, had to get it them- 
selves. Hubert Ward watched a hand of bridge, but the 
players ignored him. He watched the pool players, but he 
was an outsider to them. For no sensible reason he sud- 
denly felt homesick. He had not felt homesick in five years, 

133 



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JOHN O HARA 

and he had no explanation for it now. He had not felt 
homesick in ten years. He had never been homesick in 
his life, but now, for no reason at all, he wanted to cry. He 
looked at the intent gamblers at the card and billiard 
tables. He knew them all, they knew him, and he cared 
nothing about any of them, none of them cared anything 
about him. He was a very fortunate young man, twenty- 
five years old — and then he remembered that it was his 
birthday and it only made him feel worse. 

He went back to the kitchen — which was in the front 
of the house — and the servants who had started to eat 
their evening meal stared at his intrusion. "You looking 
for something, Mr. Ward?" said the butler. 

"Yes, Harry. Do you happen to have Mr. Barley's 
telephone number?" 

"Mr. Dwight Barley down the road? I think we may 
have that, sir. Let me have a look." Harry opened a cabinet 
drawer and brought out a white leather book. "Bara, 
Theda," he said. "Barley, Dwight. Yes sir, Malibu 6617-J-3. 
Shall I write it down, sir?" 

"Malibu 6617- J-3. I'll remember it, thanks." 

"Very good sir." 

Hubert Ward went to the telephone booth under the 
main stairway and gave the operator the number. 

"Barley residence," said a maid. 

"May I speak to Mrs. Stephens, please?" 

"One moment, sir." 

Time passed while the maid apparently found Mrs. 
Stephens, and there was a click as she picked up the ex- 
tension. "Hello, who is this?" said Mrs. Stephens. 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"This is Hubert Ward. I hope I didn't disturb you." 

"I couldn't imagine who'd be calling me." 

"Does the name register?" 

"Of course. But my sister and my brother-in-law are 
standing right here, just as mystified as I was. This is my 
first call since I've been in California." 

"Are you coming to the party tonight?" 

"Afraid not." 

"I see. Your sister made other plans." 

"Well, not exactly. It's just that — " 

"It's just that if you come here then your sister will 
have to invite the Simmonses, is that it?" 

"I'm afraid you've put your finger on it." 

"Come anyway." 

"I don't think I'd better, really. No, that wouldn't 
do at all." 

"Please come." 

"Why? I'm flattered, but why me especially?" 

"Because I'm homesick. Suddenly I got homesick, and 
I got your sister's number and called you." 

"Oh, dear. It's hard to say no to that. I know just 
how you feel. I've been feeling a little that way. Would 
you come and call for me when your dinner party's 
over? And what time would that be?" 

"Around ten o'clock." 

"I haven't got anything very dressy to wear." 

"Borrow something from your sister." 

"I can see you don't know her very well." 

"To tell you the truth, I wouldn't know her if I saw 
her." 

135 



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JOHN O HARA 

"Obviously. But I'll find something. Oh, this won't be 
a very late party, will it? Because we're all early risers 
here, and I think we have to go to Pasadena for lunch. Do 
you know the Midwick Club? I'm sure you do. That's 
quite a distance from here, and my sister's calling to me 
that we have to be ready to leave here at ten o'clock. Sun- 
day traffic." 

"Ill be at your sister's at ten o'clock tonight, and I'll 
bring you home whenever you say." 

"Thank you." She rather sang the words, and hung 
up. 

He came out of the booth and saw the butler, Harry, 
who was shaking both fists in a fit of controlled rage. 
"What's the matter, Harry?" 

Harry shook his head. 

"Come on, tell me." 

"Oh — one of those gentlemen. Insisted on using the 
ivory cueball. I told him it was against orders. I'm not to 
put out the ivory cueball for pill pool. But he insisted, and 
of course he cracked it. This air down here, and you sim- 
ply can't use an ivory ball in that sort of game. And now 
I'll catch it from the boss. I'm thinking of giving notice." 

"Which gentleman was it?" 

"I'll leave it to you to guess, sir." 

"Mr. Ziffrin." 

"Right the first time/ 

"I'll speak to Mr. Simmons, Harry. Don't you worry." 

"Oh, it isn't only that, sir. It's everything Mr. Ziffrin 
does. He coughs up in our best linen, wipes his boots on 

136 



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our hand towels, although there's cloths for that purpose 
in all the bathrooms." 

"I'll say it for you. He's a pig. But maybe Mr. Simmons 
will get rid of him." 

"Afraid not, sir. Not the way I hear. Not the way I 
hear. Can I get you anything, sir?" 

"Not the way you hear? What do you hear, Harry?" 

"Excuse me, sir, Mr. Ward. I've said more than I 
ought." 

"If there's anything Mr. Simmons ought to know — " 

"It's not my place to tell him, sir. I'm only the butler. 
Very sorry sir, but please don't pursue the subject." 

"Well— " 

"Will that be all, sir? Thank you, sir." 

The ground floor was now deserted of guests. The 
diningroom and livingrooms were brightly lighted through- 
out and in readiness for the night party. Hubert Ward 
had a last look around, as though he were the host and 
trying to see how it would all seem to Mrs. Stephens. 

If anyone got up hungry from a meal at Mildred Sim- 
mons's, it was his own fault. Tonight the dinner began 
with avocado stuffed with crabmeat and covered with 
Russian dressing, and then on to mock turtle soup laced 
with sherry; filet mignon with sauce bearnaise; whipped 
potatoes, green beans, and asparagus with drawn butter; 
hearts of lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, and, for 
dessert, cherries Jubilee. Champagne was the only wine 
other than the sherry in the soup, but some of the guests 
spurned the champagne and sipped highballs throughout 

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JOHN O HARA 

the meal. There were thirty-nine men and women seated 
at four tables of ten, ten, ten, and nine persons each. There 
was music from a combination of piano, trumpet, saxo- 
phone doubling in clarinet, bass viol, and accordion. 
The accordionist was the leader, and he wandered about, 
spotting executives and stars and nodding and smiling, 
the nod and smile quickly followed by the playing of a 
tune or the theme song from the executive's or star's most 
recent picture. Barney Morse was the leader's name, and 
he had a very nice sense of protocol; he would not play 
tunes identified with absent producers or stars until later 
in the evening, when it was also permissible to play music 
from Broadway shows. There was some, but not much, 
dancing during dinner; a man who fancied himself on the 
dance floor, a woman who wanted no one to miss her 
Molyneaux original. Dancing during dinner was not en- 
couraged; it was a time to eat and drink and to find out 
what could be found out about the industry. 

Mildred Simmons knew how her guests liked to be 
entertained. If there was a sameness to these parties it was 
because it was what these people wanted. It was a seated 
dinner, with the place cards held in the bills of crystal 
penguins. "Oh, I got you again. I had you Thursday," a 
woman would say to the man on her right, and inevitably 
the man on her left would make some joke on the wording 
of her remark. The parties offered the pleasure of the fa- 
miliar; for the unfamiliar, for surprises, for originality the 
guests could have gone to other parties, but they seldom 
strayed from their own group, unless there were others 
straying from it as well. Tonight, for example, some of 

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them would go to Marion's in Santa Monica, but not be- 
fore they had put in an appearance at Xlildred's. 

Hubert Ward was at the table for nine. On his right 
was Ruth St. Alban; on his left, Doris Arlington. "Who 
didn't come tonight?'' said Doris Arlington. 

"I think some fellow from the East," said Hubert 
Ward. 

"That's right," said Doris Arlington. "From Philly. 
Sonny Shaplen, S. S. Shaplen's son. I'm glad we're spared 
that. Do you know him?" 

"I certainly do." 

"All I can say is, he better enjoy himself while his 
father's still alive. He sure as hell wouldn't get invited on 
his own." 

"I know Sonny Shaplen. I think he's nice," said Ruth 
St. Alban. 

"You have a good word for everybody," said Doris. 
"And that's just the trouble, Ruthie. Doesn't mean any- 
thing. Try rapping a few people." 

"But I like everybody, or almost." 

"Yes, I guess you do," said Doris. "Well, I take it back. 
You stay the way you are." 

"I always see the good in everybody," said Ruth. 

"I know," said Doris. She cut out Ruth. "Hubie, you 
start shooting next week." 

"Week from Thursday." 

"I just finished one. What's the picture you're doing? 
I know it's about aviation, isn't it?" 

"Yes. The Royal Flying Corps. It's called Destroyers 
on Wings." 

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JOHN O HARA 

"A lousy title. I hope they change that," said Doris. 
"Have you got a good part? I don't necessarily mean big, 
but good? You know, Hubie, you're going to waste because 
they don't seem to find the right part for you. There goes 
Arlington, shooting off her face again, but it's true." 

"It's a good part, I think. And not very big. But I al- 
ways wanted to work with Ken Downey. For action pic- 
tures I think he's the best." 

"Well, you know I was married to Ken for three 
years." 

"I know." 

"And a worse son of a bitch to live with doesn't exist. 
But he's a genius, Hubie. He's like you. He's been wasted. 
But some day he'll get the right story. Maybe this is it. 
You know, Ken was a flyer in the war, and he's always 
wanted to do an aviation picture. But don't lose your tem- 
per. He's a practical joker, and the first couple days shoot- 
ing he'll play some terrible joke. He calls that testing your 
sense of humor. The man has absolutely no sense of 
humor. Well — that's not true. He has a sense of humor. 
But not like Bob Benchley. I mean Bob has a sense of 
humor, and so has Ken but a different kind. It's hard to 
explain, but you'll find out for yourself. Bob Benchley 
would never do anything that would really hurt anybody, 
and Ken does. He's very cruel. I think the war did some- 
thing to Ken. He saw a lot of his friends shot down, and 
he gives you the impression that he doesn't care what hap- 
pens. That's one of the things that's held him back in this 
business. You can't get anywhere with men like Charley 
Simmons, for instance, if you don't at least make a pre- 

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tense of taking things seriously. Who's the head camera- 
man, do you know?" 

"Yes. Walter Rapallo." 

"Oh, then you have nothing to worry about. They 
work well together. Walter's the only man Ken will admit 
knows more than he does — about the camera, that is. 
About anything else — nobody. Love. Art. Philosophy. 
Aeroplanes. Poetry." 

"Poetry?" 

"Oh, God, yes. Poetry. I used to get so fucking tired 
of Ken spouting poetry, and then going out and turning in 
a fire alarm or something like that . . . Mr. Ziffrin is put- 
ting his cigar in the mashed potatoes again. What do you 
hear about Ziffrin and Charley Simmons? I hear they had 
a row." 

"I don't know." 

"Come on, Hubie. Open up. It'll get around sooner 
or later* 

"I honestly don't know anything. I didn't even know 
they'd had a row." 

"What do you and Mildred talk about, besides who's 
screwing who?" 

"That's about all, I guess." 

"Did you ever screw Mildred?" 

"No. And would I tell you if I had?" 

"Not in so many words, but I might be able to tell by 
the way you answered." 

"Well?" 

"I'm not sure. I'm not sure you did, and I'm not sure 
you didn't. If you haven't, take my advice and don't." 

141 



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JOHN O HARA 

"Why?" 

"Not that I give a damn about Mildred. But I'm very 
fond of Charley, and he's been very good to that 
woman." 

"What about you and Charley?" 

"I offered it and was turned down. Everybody knows 
that." 

"Well, I heard that, but would you offer it again?" 

"No. Heavens, no. If I had a brother he wouldn't be 
as safe with me as Charley is. But sometimes I worry about 
Charley. Tonight, why is he getting plastered? The row 
with Ziffrin? I'd ask him, but I don't think he'd tell me. 
There's something going on. A lot of men, including 
some here tonight, are getting sore at Charley for being 
so pessimistic. About conditions, I mean. They wish he'd 
shut up. And I guess I do, too. You don't put out a fire by 
pouring gasoline on it, and Charley's one of the few edu- 
cated men in this business. He isn't only U. S. Films, In- 
corporated. The things he's saying, if the Wall Street 
Journal got hold of them, stocks in every company would 
collapse. This is the third largest industry in the whole 
United States, or the fourth. Third or fourth, it doesn't do 
any good to cry the blues that way. Do you think it does?" 

"No, but I don't know much about that. I don't put 
my money in stocks." 

"I wish I hadn't. Not that I don't like working. I'll 
never stop as long as I can get a job. But, boy, I took a 
shellacking in the market. Twice, not just once. From 
now on, annuities and government bonds for little Doris. 
And bridge with my friends that haven't caught on to 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

contract. Do you know what I did the last time I was in 
New York? I was there for two weeks, and I had ten les- 
sons from Ely and Josephine Culbertson. I wish Mildred 
played bridge. I'd love to take some money away from 
her. How about you, Hubie? Would you like to start a 
game after dinner?" 

"Not with somebody that just took lessons from the 
Culbertsons. Half a cent a point is my limit." 

"Oh, then I withdraw the invitation. Joe Ziffrin. He'd 
play for a nickel a point, and he fancies himself. Our host- 
ess is signaling to you." 

Hubert Ward turned around, but Mildred was not 
looking in his direction. 

"She gave up," said Doris. "I don't know what she 
wanted. Be independent, Hubie. Make her come to you." 

"That's what I'm going to do." 

Doris looked at him and half smiled. "You know, 
I'm still not positive, but I think you and Mildred. I only 
said I think" 

"Lay off it, Doris. You could start something where 
there is nothing." 

"Oh, if you only knew how many times I've said that, 
in those very same words. I fooled Ken Downey with that 
line for six months one time." 

Tm not trying to fool anybody." 

"And you're not, Mr. Ward. Not little Doris. But I'll 
keep my suspicions to myself. Ill do that for Charley, not 
for Mildred, or even you. Oh, shut up." 

"I didn't say anything." 

"You were going to." 

143 



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JOHN O HARA 

"You won't mind if I see if I have better luck with 
Ruth — conversationally, that is." 

"Oh, with Ruth you don't need luck as far as anything 
else is concerned. But of course you found that out a long 
time ago. No, go right ahead. Ill see what I can extract from 
Eric- 
Ruth St. Alban was at least a simple chatterer, and 
for the remainder of the meal she held forth on the subject 
of her diet, which was guaranteed to slim you down with- 
out leaving wrinkles, owing to a high calcium content. At 
the end of dinner the women went upstairs, and the men 
sat around the tables as they were being cleared. Hubert 
Ward made his way to Charley Simmons's table. 

"Hello, Hubie. You don't have a drink. Take a Bene- 
dictine frappe. It goes good after a heavy dinner." 
"No, I'll have some coffee, that's all." 
"Sit here next to me before Joe Ziffrin gets a chance. 
He's maneuvering his way over, and I got nothing to say 
to him. Who'd you sit next to tonight?" 

"Doris on the one side and Ruth on the other." 
"I hear Doris just finished one for Paramount that's 
going to make her bigger than ever, if that's possible. 
That's a real woman, Doris. If she'd of been a man and 
maybe just a little education, she could be the head of any 
studio in town." 

"They say that about Mildred, too. Practically that." 
"What they say about Mildred is that half my brains 
belongs to her. That's a little different. That's the same as 
if you said teamwork. But Doris is a lone wolf type of op- 
erator. And not saying anything against Mildred, or de- 

144 



THE BIG LAUGH 

tracting in any way, but Mildred isn't as good as Doris 
when it comes to judging people. That's because she had 
it tougher all the way, Doris. Chottie Sears and Doris 
Arlington would be my pick if I were asked to name the 
two brainiest women in town, but Doris I know better. I 
don't see as much of Chottie, so that leaves Doris. Mildred 
is mixed up in this business because I am, but Doris is 
strictly pictures. Strictly. She has a good story sense, she 
knows camera work, and she could cut a picture if she had 
to. And pictures are her life, and not just her living, if you 
know what I mean. She likes the men, all right, but the 
men come second with Doris. She arrived at the point a 
long time ago where no man is as important to her as 
her career. I wonder what would have happened if she 
and I got together that time. It's interesting to speculate 
that. She was awful pretty then. She grew into a handsome 
woman, chic. But if I would have screwed her that time, 
there was something very appealing to the kid. The brains 
I didn't know about till later. But what if I fell for her 
then, and then the two of us pooled our brains? We could 
have changed the entire history of this town, the entire 
industry." 

"Probably. Charley, will you excuse me? I have a 
date that I'm bringing back here. You're all right. Ziffrin's 
got an audience." 

"Who's your date, if I may ask?" 

"She's Mrs. Dwight Barley's sister. A young widow 
named Stephens. I said I'd pick her up at ten o'clock. 
And Charley, I know you're not drunk, but go easy." 

"I can't get drunk, Hubie. Not that it's any your 

145 



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JOHN O HARA 

business. I just stay the same. See, that's the difference 
between those sweet rum drinks and whiskey. The rum 
knocked me, but the whiskey has no effect." 

"Famous last words," said Hubert Ward. 

"I appreciate your good intentions, but don't start 
taking liberties, Hubie. Go get your date." 

Dwight Barley and his wife were reading magazines, 
and Hubert Ward, when he rang the doorbell, could see 
the Barleys simultaneously removing their reading glasses, 
with Barley the one who came to the door. It was an ugly 
yellow house, more suitable to a New Jersey seashore re- 
sort than to Malibu, California, but so was Dwight Barley. 
He was wearing a tan gabardine jacket and grey flannel 
slacks, polka-dot bow tie, and plain white buckskin shoes. 
"Good evening. You're Mr. Ward? Will you come in?" 

"Yes, good evening. I've met you before — " 

"Well, I didn't think you'd remember. Come in, my 
sister-in-law will be down in a minute. I'd like you to meet 
my wife." 

"I've also met Mrs. Barley." 

"Oh, yes indeed," said Josephine Barley. "Sit down, 
won't you? Nina will be down any minute. She had to 
borrow an evening dress from a friend of mine. Nothing 
of mine would fit her, of course." 

"How about a drink, Mr. Ward? What would you 
like? We have whiskey, gin, and brandy. And tequila." 

"Not a thing, thanks. I'm not much of a drinker." 

"That's a load off my mind," said Josephine Barley. 
"I had visions of Nina left all by herself at a movie celeb- 
rity party." 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"You underestimate your sister's attractiveness." 

"Not a bit. It's just that I know Nina, and her shy- 
ness among strangers. And I suppose all the big stars will 
be there, they usually are, aren't they?" 

"No." 

"They're not? Who is, then?" 

"Big stars, but not all of them by any means. A lot 
of them are never invited to the Simmonses'." 

"Oh, then there's an inner circle, you might say?" 

"Very much so. A lot of big stars would give a year's 
salary to be invited to the Simmonses'." 

"Oh, dear. There's that much prestige? I didn't real- 
ize that. I didn't realize that at all. I thought all movie 
people more or less went around together." 

"No." 

"Then tell me, Mr. Ward," said Barley. "How do you 
get admitted to this inner circle? I mean, why are some in 
it and some not?" 

"It's hard to say, exactly. I'm not a big star. There 
are lots much bigger, but I was invited to these people's 
parties before I realized that — -well, I was like Mrs. Barley. 
I thought all movie people went around together. But we 
had the same thing at home." 

"Where was home, Mr. Ward?" said Josephine Barley. 

"North Montclair, New Jersey. There were some peo- 
ple that belonged to the club, and some that didn't." 

"Oh, you're an Easterner?" said Josephine Barley. 

"Very much so. I'd never been west of the Delaware 
River till I came out here. Chicago was practically the 
western frontier, to me." 

147 



JOHN O HARA 

"Oh, really?" said Josephine Barley. 

"Do you mind if I ask you — well, an impertinent ques- 
tion. But is Hubert Ward your real name?" said Dwight 
Barley. 

"No," said Hubert Ward. He paused just long enough 
for them to begin to triumph. "My real name is Richard 
Hubert Ward. Why?" 

Barley was quick to recover. "If it comes to that, my 
name isn't Dwight Barley. It's Timothy Dwight Barley, 
but I stopped using my first name long ago. Timothy Bar- 
ley — if you know anything about farming. I could have 
been called Timothy Alfalfa Oats Barley. In fact my nick- 
name in college was Farmer." 

"Where did you go to college?" 

"I went to the University of Michigan, at Ann Ar- 
bor." 

"And before that, Exeter," said his wife. "Where did 
you go, Mr. Ward?" 

"Well, I went to Andover for a while, but I didn't last 
very long. I didn't go to college at all." 

"Oh, you went to Andover? I broke my leg in the 
Andover game. You're too young to have been on that 
team — " 

"Not only too young. I never went out for football." 

"It's a great game, Ward. You learn things on the 
football field that last you through life." 

"Not anything I wanted to learn." 

"Well, of course you were going to be an actor." 

"No, I was going to be a banker. That's what I was 
headed for. But my father fixed that." 

148 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Why? What did he want you to be?" 

"A banker. But he did a little high-powered embez- 
zling." 

"Are you joking?" 

"No. I wouldn't joke about that. He got caught, and 
he shot himself." 

"Is that true?" said Barley. 

"You're a businessman, although I don't know what 
business. But you could find out without much trouble. 
And you probably will, so I'm telling you myself." 

"Why do you say I probably will? Frankly, I had no 
such intention." 

"But I'm hoping to see more of Mrs. Stephens than 
just tonight, and I'm sure you and Mrs. Barley will want 
to find out all you can." 

The Barleys looked at each other, each willing to let 
the other make the reply. Josephine Barley accepted the 
duty. "My sister's returning to Chicago next week, so I 
guess that won't be necessary, Mr. Ward." 

"Maybe not. But now you know that much, at least. 
Ah, here she is." 

"Hello," said Nina Stephens. "You were late, so I 
won't apologize for keeping you." 

"Very pretty dress," said Hubert Ward. 

"Borrowed, but I'd like to buy it from the owner. 
Maybe if I spill something on it she'll be willing to sell it 
cheap." 

"Nina!" said Josephine Barley. 

"Now I don't mean it, Josephine. Well, are we 
ready?" Nina Stephens looked at her sister and brother-in- 

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JOHN O HARA 

law and frowned a little. "Yes, I think we're all ready. I 
left a note in the kitchen to be called at half-past eight. 
Is that early enough, Josephine?" 

"Yes. Goodnight." 

"Goodnight, Nina," said Dwight Barley. "Mr. Ward." 

"Goodnight, Mrs. Barley. Mr. Barley. The bank was 
in Newark. Newark, New Jersey. His name was Sanford 
Ward. Goodnight." 

In the Lancia, even before he started the engine, she 
said, "What was that all about? You didn't hit it off, I 
could tell that. I always know when Josephine doesn't 
approve of somebody. And Dwight, too. Not that they 
were going to receive you with open arms anyway. If you 
don't belong to the California Club, don't expect much 
cordiality from my brother-in-law. He says that's the only 
place where he meets his kind of people. And he may be 
right." 

"Well, it isn't the only place, but I know what he 
means." Hubert Ward reported the gist of the conversa- 
tion as he drove slowly to the Simmons house. She was si- 
lent throughout, and when they stopped at the house she 
made no move to get out of the car. 

"Tins is where we get out," he said. 

"I'm not so sure," she said. "I only met you this after- 
noon." 

"I only met you this afternoon." 

"My sister is quite a bit older than I am, and she's 
been very worried about me. She insisted on my coming 
to California because — I wasn't — I was taking too long 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

snapping out of it. My husband's death. If you don't 
mind, Mr. Ward, I think you'd better take me back." 

"But I do mind. I mind very much." 

"Please. Get me a taxi. Or there must be one of these 
chauffeurs that will take me home." 

"You know damn well I'd take you home, and not any 
taxi or somebody else's chauffeur. But you also know 
damn well . . ." He stopped abruptly, the thing that 
happens when an idea is so new that it has never been 
confined by words. 

"What?" she said. 

"I don't know, Nina. I don't know. I said more to your 
sister than I can say to you." 

"You said much too much to my sister." 

"Yes. I did. But what I said I meant. I do want to see 
you more than just tonight. I don't want to see anyone 
else. I never want to see anyone else. And I've never said 
that before, to anyone." 

"There's an explanation for that. An easy one." She 
waved her hand in the direction of the house, brightly lit, 
music coming from the diningroom at the other end. "I'm 
not a part of that, and you told me this afternoon you 
were bored." 

"Yes, that's the easy explanation, all right. But give 
me credit for thinking of that one myself. I did. But it 
wasn't enough, not good enough." 

"Evening, Mr. Ward? Park it for you? You want me 
to cover it for the night?" said the Simmons chauffeur. 

"No thanks, Leonard. We're not ready to get out yet." 

The Simmons chauffeur went away. 

!5i 



-~\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"We could talk about this inside. Your shawl isn't 
much protection from this damp air, and I'm told the 
dampness raises hell with a permanent wave. You'll spoil 
it for Pasadena tomorrow." 

"I don't give a damn about Pasadena tomorrow. Can 
we talk inside? We ought to talk, so that there'll be no 
misunderstanding." 

"Although I know what you're going to say." 

"Yes, I guess it's pretty obvious." 

"You're going to tell me that we're not going to see 
each other again. But Nina, you're not going to mean it. 
I know that. You can't mean it, because at least some of 
what's happened to me has happened to you, too. I be- 
lieve that as much as I believe in God. Or more. If I'm 
wrong, tell me, and I'll turn the car around and drive you 
home." 

"No, you're not wrong." 

"That's all I want you to say now. Let's go in and 
I'll show you the animals in the zoo, and when you get 
tired of them 111 take you home." 

She turned to him and smiled. 

"You know, that smile was as good as a kiss," he said. 

"Strange man," she said. "Nice, though. In some 
ways." 

He had not prepared her for the stares. Other men, 
and he himself, had brought an occasional bit player and 
non-professional to parties of the group; and from time 
to time there would be visitors from the worlds of Los 
Angeles, Pasadena, and Santa Barbara, three worlds in 
one outside world. But Nina Stephens, whom some of 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

them had seen in the afternoon (and mistaken her for a 
new governess) was now stared at with hostility. The 
actresses were sure she would not photograph well; the 
non-acting wives noted the absence of jewelry and the 
dress that was a "Ford"; the men thought she might be 
some German actress whom an agent would bring to their 
offices on Monday. One non-acting wife said she under- 
stood the young woman was Hubie Ward's sister. One 
man said he had laid her two weeks ago in the most repu- 
table Hollywood brothel, and he thought Hubie Ward 
had a hell of a nerve to bring her here. 

"Let's find our hostess," said Hubie Ward. 

But their hostess found them. "Good evening, I'm 
Mrs. Simmons. I met you this afternoon, didn't I?" 

"How nice of you to remember," said Nina Stephens. 

"Mrs. Stevenson? Did I get it right?" 

"Without the son. Stephens." 

"I hope you told Dwight and Josephine. Are they 
coming, or maybe they're here." 

"They have to be up very early, but they asked me 
to thank you and could they have a raincheck." 

"I bet it was Dwight that said that, not Josephine. 
Slang." 

"No, I think it was Josephine." 

"Well, make yourself at home. Drinks are over there, 
and if you get hungry, just tell the waiter. The buffet 
won't be ready till around twelve." Mildred left them. 

"She never said a word to you," said Nina Stephens. 
"I don't think she's very happy about your bringing me." 

"I don't think she is either." 

153 



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JOHN O HARA 

"I guess no more need be said about that" said Nina. 

"I guess not." 

She smiled at him again. "We've gotten pretty far in 
a very short time." 

"Yeah," he said. "I was thinking the same thing." 

"And with not much said. We're going too fast." 

"Not for me." 

"For me, though," she said. 

"All right, well slow down. Just as long as I can be 
with you, that's all I care about." 

"I recognize a lot of the women and a few of the men. 
But who are the others?" 

"Producers. Directors. And their wives. And some 
wives and husbands of the men and women you recog- 
nize." 

"This is Hollywood society, I take it?" 

"Yes." 

"When does the excitement begin?" 

"The biggest excitement will be around four o'clock 
in the morning." 

"What happens then? A naked girl comes out of a 
cake?" 

"Sorry to disappoint you. No, the biggest excitement 
will be in the poker game. They'll raise the stakes, and 
play stud, and maybe some guy will have a possible 
straight flush. Something like that. And you'll see a pot 
go to, oh, fifteen or twenty thousand dollars. Maybe 
more." 

"I know people that play for that much in Chicago." 

"Well, that's the big excitement in this group. I grant 

154 






THE BIG LAUGH 

you that all these men have been to parties where the 
naked girl comes out of a cake. And plenty more than 
that goes on. But not at these parties. And I guess some 
of the women in this room have been the girl that came 
out of the cake. But not any more." 

"Mrs. Simmons looks as though she might have been 
a madam. Maybe I shouldn't have said that, but was she?" 

"She'd love you for that. No, she was a stenographer 
in her husband's law firm, before he got in the movie 
business." 

"There's Doris Arlington! Oh, do you suppose I could 
meet her? Is she going to hate me because I came with 
you, like Mrs. Simmons?" 

"No. Doris and I were never that way about each 
other. I'll get her to come over. She's looking for some 
suckers to play bridge." 

"Doris Arlington playing bridge? Don't disillusion me. 
And she's good?" 

"Yes, and she's been taking lessons from the Culbert- 
sons. She saw me wave. She's coming over." 

Doris Arlington slunk over to them. "Hello. I'm Doris 
Arlington. I see Hubie's not introducing you around." Doris 
sat beside Nina. 

"I'm Nina Stephens." 

"How do you do," said Doris. She lowered her voice. 
"Hubie, Mildred and Charley have had a knock-down- 
and-drag-out. I thought I ought to tell you." 

"Where is he?" 

"I haven't seen him for about a half an hour. I think 
he may have gone upstairs." 

155 



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JOHN O HARA 

"Will you talk to Nina while I go look for him?" 

"I'd be most happy to, but are you sure you want to 
do that? I'm not sure it's wise." 

"Were you there when they had the fight?" 

"At the beginning. She told him to stop swilling the 
booze and then they went out in the hall and closed the 
door behind them. Then she came back, but I haven't 
seen him since. So I guess he retired to his bedroom. It 
was a bad one, 111 tell you that. She came back and the 
first thing she did was have a great big rye highball. If he 
can get drunk I guess I can too,' she said." 

"And you haven't seen him for a half an hour." 

"Nobody has, at least nobody in this room. He com- 
pletely disappeared." 

"He doesn't want to have to talk to Ziffrin." 

"This wasn't about Ziffrin." 

"How do you know?" 

"Those two wouldn't fight that way about Ziffrin. I'd 
stay out of it if I were you." 

"I know what you're trying to say, Doris, but I'm 
going to find Charley. Excuse me, Nina? Ill be right back." 

Hubert Ward went upstairs and knocked on Char- 
ley's bedroom door. 

"Who is it?" 

"It's me, Hubie Ward." 

The door was opened. Charley Simmons did not 
wait at the door, but walked to a chair, beside winch, on 
the floor, was a whiskey bottle. He had a highball glass in 
his hand. "Shut the door," he said. 

"What is there I can do, Charley?" 

156 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"You ve done it. Thanks." 

"What are you talking about?" 

"Don't make me throw up. Mildred told me." 

"Told you what?" 

"Yeah, I got her mad enough and she told me. She 
thinks I have a woman some place, so today she had her 
man. You. I don't have a woman. But she thought I did. 
She wouldn't ask me. No. No, she wouldn't ask me. That 
would have spoiled her excuse. Well, Hubie, you and her 
talking dirty God knows how many years, you finally got 
her in heat. Something to see, isn't it? Now you know why 
I never wanted anybody else for nineteen years. But now 
I don't want her either. Now she's nothing but an ugly 
woman with a shape, and all the fancy things you told her 
and she read about and maybe I told her. Yeah, maybe 
I told her too. But I don't want any more of it, Hubie. You 
help yourself. Not that I blame you. If it's there, grab it. 
But do me a favor. Pack your God damn bag and don't 
sleep here tonight. Go on downstairs, join the party, and 
I don't even care if you take her with you. But no more 
screwing my wife in my house. I have enough trouble. Go 
on, beat it, Hubie. Get out, out, out, out, out of my sight. 
And don't stay here tonight." 

"What are you going to do? Are you going to divorce 
Mildred?" 

"I don't know what I'm gonna do. We got the kids 
to consider. Stover at Yale, and the daughter that wants 
to be a nun, and the one they didn't spoil. I don't want 
you to spoil her, too, Hubie. And you would. You're the 
kind that would. You can't help yourself. I know all about 

157 



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JOHN O HARA 

you. All about you. Marty Ruskin told me all about you 
a long time ago, Hubie. So go away, will you?" 

"I m sorry, Charley." 

"Yeah, I wouldn't be s prised. But you stink, Hubie. 
You honest to God stink." He picked up the bottle and 
poured whiskey to the top of the glass. 

"I agree with you," said Hubert Ward. "Charley, 
Doris is worried about you. Do you want me to send her 
up to talk to you?" 

"Ill be a son of a bitch. Do you think I'd let Doris 
get mixed up in this stinking mess? No, you wouldn't un- 
derstand how I feel about Doris. Do you know what I 
think about Doris Arlington? Married three times? In six 
hundred beds? The straightest woman in Hollywood. The 
only one. The only one that's on the level. You wouldn't 
understand that. And neither would your mistress, Mrs. 
Charles Simmons. Go 'way." He looked at the glass and 
started to drink, and he did not see Hubert Ward. 

Doris Arlington was engaged in chatty conversation 
with Nina, but when she saw Hubert Ward she stopped. 

"How is he?" 

"He's in very bad shape. But if he finishes the drink 
he just started he'll pass out. Straight whiskey, a highball 
glass full." 

"I think I'll go up." 

"No. Don't," said Hubert Ward. "I said don't, Doris. 
He doesn't want you to. He said so." 

"Me in particular?" 



c You in particular." 
1 want to help him. 



158 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Tomorrow, but don't go up there tonight. I won't let 
you. 

"You won't let me?" 

"Cut the movie-star stuff, Doris. You don't frighten 
me a bit. The best thing for him to do is pass out, and 
he's ready to. Let's go out and get a breath of fresh air. 
Come on, Doris. You come with us." 

"No." 

"Come on, the three of us. Clear the brain before you 
start your bridge game." 

"All right," said Doris Arlington. 

They went out together and walked toward the pool. 
He lit cigarettes for the women and for himself. "Maybe 
I can get a towel and dry off a couple of chairs. Wouldn't 
you rather sit out here a while?" 

"Not after what you said about the dampness and 
my permanent," said Nina. 

"Let's just finish our cigarettes. Standing that long 
won't hurt us," said Doris. She looked up toward Charley 
Simmons's bedroom windows. "I hate to think of him up 
there, all by himself, feeling lousy." 

"He's probably passed out," said Hubert Ward. 

"He was telling me earlier, he's going to make a sun 
porch of the diningroom roof," said Doris. 

"Yes, he told me that this afternoon." 

They all looked toward the diningroom roof, imag- 
ining a sun porch, then Nina spoke: "There's someone up 
there." 

"Sh-h-h," whispered Doris. "Do you see who it is, 
Hubie?" 

159 



r~A 



JOHN O HARA 

"Yes." 

"Don't make any noise," whispered Doris. 

They made no move or sound as they watched Char- 
ley Simmons, walking unsteadily, staggering now and 
then, now and then stopping to look out at the sea. He 
was in evening shirt and trousers, without the jacket, and 
they could see him plainly. And slowly they began to 
hear him. "We can put the God damn wuddia-call here. 
Here, we'll put the God damn, the God damn umbrella." 
He was talking to himself. 

"He's getting close to the edge," whispered Nina. 
"Can't we stop him?" 

"He'll be all right if he goes back, but we mustn't star- 
tle him," whispered Doris. 

"Put the God damn railing — " they heard him say, 
and then he took a step and toppled forward. He stayed 
still where he fell, on the concrete terrace. They ran to 
him, but he remained frozen in the same position and did 
not answer them because he could not. "Don't move him," 
said Nina. "Don't touch him. I think his neck is broken, but 
he may be alive." 

Doris shook her head. "No, but we can get a doctor." 

"I'll get a doctor," said Hubert Ward. 

"Send someone out with a blanket," said Nina. "He 
may be alive. But we mustn't touch him. We could do 
just the wrong thing. Ah, the poor man. It's Mr. Simmons, 
isn't it?" 

"It was Mr. Simmons," said Doris. She stood and 
stared down at him, and on an impulse Nina Stephens 
put her arm around Doris Arlington's shoulders. 

160 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"It was so quick," said Nina. 

"For him, not quick enough." 

"We couldn't have stopped him," said Nina. 

"I guess not. And even if we had." Doris Arlington 
put her hand to her lips and made the gesture of throw- 
ing a kiss to the figure on the concrete. 

"Were you in love with him?" said Nina. 

"No, girl. I was better than in love with him. He was 
somebody I really liked." 

Suddenly Bve or six men and women burst out of the 
house, Mildred Simmons among them. "Where is he? 
Where is he?" she shouted. Then she saw him on the con- 
crete, ran to him and knelt, and drew him up, and his 
head rolled of its own weight. 

"Mildred, don't! His neck!" said Doris Arlington. 

"I hope he was dead," Nina whispered to Doris. "He 
has no chance now." 

"Here's a blanket," said a man. 

Mildred Simmons held her husband to her bosom 
and rocked from side to side. "Poppa, poppa," she re- 
peated. She looked in the faces of the people gathered 
around, from one to another, but gave no sign of recogni- 
tion, not even to Hubert Ward when he appeared. 

"There's a doctor on the way, he's staying at the 
Lewises', and the sheriffs patrol are getting an ambu- 
lance," said Hubert Ward. It was an announcement 
more than a message to Mildred. He went over and stood 
beside Nina Stephens, and now Mildred followed him 
with her eyes, but kept rocking from side to side with 
Charley's head crushing her breasts. Now there were more 

161 



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JOHN O HARA 

people, and again more, speaking softly but creating by 
their number a steady muttering. 

"We can't do anything," said Hubert Ward to Doris 
Arlington. "I'm going to take Nina home." 

Doris Arlington nodded. "Yes, you ought to," she 
said. 

From the edge of the group someone said, "Here's 
the doctor," and it was repeated by others. 

"Let's wait," said Nina. People crowded in front of 
them and they could not see or hear the doctor, a thin 
young man in a dinner jacket. Then they saw him stand 
up and they heard a wail from Mildred, and now the oth- 
ers, no longer speaking softly, uttered words of comfort. 

"Shall we go now?" said Hubert Ward. 

"Yes," said Nina. 

They walked through the house and Hubert Ward 
told a boy to bring his car. "Would you mind waiting in 
the car? I won't be long." 

"All right," said Nina. 

He went up to his room and put his clothes in his bag 
and returned to the car. He tipped the boy, and drove out 
to the road. "It's still quite early," he said. "It's only a little 
after eleven. Shall we go for a drive? Put my coat on and 
let's drive somewhere." 

"All right," she said. 

They drove toward Santa Barbara, the first ten miles 
in silence. "Are you warm enough?" he said. 

"Yes, are you?" She was huddled in his polo coat. 

"Yes." 

"You don't have to talk," she said. 

162 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Thanks," he said. "I just don't want to be alone." 

"I know." 

"And I suppose you know why." 

"It isn't hard to guess," she said. "But don't talk, 
unless you want to." 

"All of a sudden I do want to. Will you let me?" 

"Yes." 

"And not hold against me anything I say?" 

"I won't promise that." 

"You don't think much of me, do you?" 

"If I say no, you won't talk, and I think you ought 
to talk. It'll be better to talk to me than to somebody in 
the movies." 

"Quite the opposite. You're the only one whose opin- 
ion I give a damn for." 

"You mustn't think that. This is your life, and I'm 
leaving here in a few days. I'm going back to where I be- 
long, and you're staying here. Their opinion is very im- 
portant in your life." 

"There's nothing important in my life except you. 
Whether you like it or not." 

"That will pass. Everything does. Nearly everything." 

"I slept with Mildred Simmons just once. That's all." 

"Well, now the coast is clear . . . I'm sorry, I 
shouldn't have said that. I don't know any of the circum- 
stances, and I don't want to know." 

He was silent. 

"Listen, you don't owe me any apology. I mean ex- 
planation." 

163 



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JOHN O HARA 

"The strange thing is that I feel that I do. For that 
and everything else I've ever done that you wouldn't ap- 
prove of." 

"We're going too fast again, and you're driving too 
fast, too, by the way." 
Sorry. 

"I'm getting out of your life and you out of mine — 
tonight." 

"No!" 

"Yes. I've been married, I have a child. And some 
day I expect to marry again. But until then I don't want 
to have anything messy." 

"Have I suggested anything messy?" 

"No, but what you wouldn't consider messy, I do. No 
matter how you'd dress it up, or even if I dressed it up, 
it would still be messy." 

"Would you consider marriage messy? To me?" 

"I haven't even known you twelve hours, half a day. 
Don't speak of marriage. Yes, that kind of marriage would 
be messy. When I was married it was for life. My husband 
was killed, but the next time I marry will be for life, too. 
Anything else I consider messy." 

"Staying married can be messy, too." 

"Not very often. That's the Hollywood idea. When 
it's unpleasant or uncomfortable, or inconvenient, you get 
a divorce. No wonder you have so many divorces, if that's 
the way you enter into marriage. It shouldn't be that way. 
You shouldn't admit that you may be making a mistake. 
As soon as you have any doubts you should break the en- 
gagement." 

164 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"You were lucky. You happened to have a good mar- 
riage." 

"It wasn't all luck. The trouble is people leave too 
much to luck. They get married and then trust to luck. 
They should be sure in the first place." 

"Do you go to church?" 

"Of course I go to church. And not just on Easter. I 
go two or three times a month. Sometimes oftener." 

"You're not a Catholic, are you?" 

"Heavens, no. What ever gave you that idea? I'm an 
Episcopalian, and very Low Church. Are you Catholic? 
I went to school with a girl named Ward and she was 
Catholic." 

"No relation, I'm sure. No, I'm nothing. I was chris- 
tened an Episcopalian but I was never confirmed," 

They were silent again until he said to her, "Are you 
asleep?" 

"No." 

They were driving with the top down and the wind- 
shield wiper was swinging back and forth. The arc it 
made was the only clear area on the glass; the rest was 
as untransparent as if it had been frosted. 

"It looks like a pendulum, the windshield wiper. The 
clock of life, time passing much more quickly than we 
realize," she said. 

"Yes, I see what you mean," he said. 

"That man tonight, I feel as though I wanted to apol- 
ogize to him." 

"Why?" 

"Several reasons. My lack of feeling, for one. I ought 

165 



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JOHN O HARA 

to be feeling more than I do, to see a man take a wrong 
step, and a second later he's dead. All life has gone out 
of him. A drunken man, walking on a roof, talking to him- 
self. Do you know what's so terrible about it?" 

"What?" 

"I'm almost ashamed to say this. But I've seen the 
same thing in comedies." 

"Two-reelers, yes." 

"There's a Jewish comedian with a big nose, I can't 
think of his name." 

"Jewish comedian with a big nose." 

"A long nose. A nose like an ant-eater, almost." 

"Larry Semon." 

"That's his name! Do you see what I mean? This man 
tonight was like Larry Semon. He even looked a little like 
him. I must have seen hundreds of comedies of people 
walking off roofs." 

"Yes." 

"Stepping off into space. Except that usually some- 
one pulls them back." 

"By the seat of the pants." 

"Or else they almost fall but not quite, and then they 
look down and realize how high up they are. That's all I 
can think of." 

"It would give Charley a laugh." 

"It would?" 

"Yes, I think it would. He had a sense of humor, and 
I guess — I don't know." 

"What?" she said. 

"Well, it's sort of grim humor. But Charley was a big 

166 



THE BIG LAUGH 

shot, one of the biggest. And it's kind of ironic, a big shot 
in pictures ending up doing a pratfall. I can't laugh about 
it, God knows. But it's ironic. It's like — I don't know. As 
though Tom Mix got kicked to death by a Shetland pony." 

"And those who live by the sword shall perish by 
the sword," she said. 

"I guess so, yes. Charley Simmons never made any 
comedies, of course." 

"But he made movies, and I never have taken them 
seriously." 

"God knows he did. Especially the last few months. 
He took the whole world seriously." 

"Was he nice?" 

"Was he nice? Yes, he was nice. I always liked him. 
He didn't like me." 

"Naturally." 

"No, that wasn't why. I only slept with her once, 
and that was — so recently that — no. He didn't like me, 
because big shots, the Charley Simmonses and the big 
directors, they're the real big shots. Actors and actresses 
are better known to the public, but when the big shots 
crack the whip, we go through the hoop. We're cattle." 

"I see. And for the same reason you don't like them." 

"I guess that's true. Except in the case of Charley 
Simmons, I damn near had a friend. I don't know why 
he began confiding in me, but lately he did. Maybe be- 
cause I wasn't a big shot. I guess that was it. The things 
that were worrying him, he didn't dare confide in another 
big shot, because when he tried to talk to them they got 
sore. Charley was in trouble that had nothing to do with 

167 



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JOHN O HARA 

Mildred or me. Charley was worried about the world." 

"I don't believe that people worry that much about 
the world. I think when they worry about the world 
they're really worried about something inside them- 
selves." 

"You happen to be right in his case. He was fed up 
with picture business, and secretly he wanted to go back 
to practising law. He was a lawyer. A Phi Beta Kappa. 
And he was never at home in Hollywood. You hit it right 
on the nose, at least in Charley's case." 

"Where are we going?" she said. 

"We're headed toward Santa Barbara, but we don't 
have to go there. I'm just following the highway. Are you 
cold? Shall we stop and get a cup of coffee?" 

"No, your coat is very comfortable." 

"It's very unusual, too. It's ready-made. And it's three 
years old. In fact, it's a polo coat that I've worn on the polo 
field. A very unusual coat." 

"Belonging to a very unusual man." 

"I don't know how you meant that, but you're right 
there, too. I am a very unusual man." He held out his 
wrist. "Can you see what time it is?" 

"It's ten past twelve," she said. "Why?" 

"I can relax. My birthday is over." 

"Was today your birthday?" 

"Yes. I was twenty-five. It's supposed to be an impor- 
tant birthday, but I hardly thought about it all day. I 
had a lot else to think about." 

"Why do you say you're a very unusual man?" she 
said. 

168 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Because I am. Take the opposite of an unusual man, 
and you've got D wight Barley." 

"And my husband, if you mean conventional." 

"I mean conventional. And that's what you like, isn't 
it?" 

"Decidedly." 

"Because you're a very conventional woman?" 

"Decidedly." 

"But you're not, you know." 

"In every conceivable way," she said. 

"No. You've made yourself that, but you've done too 
good a job. The conventional women are Doris Arlington. 
Ruth St. Alban." 

"Was she there tonight?" 

"Yes. Why?" 

"I heard some story about her, when she was stop- 
ping over in Chicago one time. A boy I know was intro- 
duced to her. Oh, it was one of those messy things. But 
how can you say they're conventional?" 

"Because they're dying for respectability. They love 
all the excitement and publicity, but every time they fall 
for a man they always say this is the real thing at last." 

"You were saying something like that yourself, earlier 
this evening." 

"I know. That's why I understand these women. I'm 
a very unusual man, but that doesn't say I'm not fed up. 
If we'd stopped for a cup of coffee, the man behind the 
counter would recognize me. All the other customers 
would recognize me. We'd get special attention, and then 
I'd be expected to put down five bucks for two hamburg- 

169 



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JOHN O HARA 

ers and two coffees, forty cents' worth of food. Five dol- 
lars, keep the change. Live like that a few years and the 
novelty wears off. And they'd all stare at you." 

"As they did tonight." 

"Yes, but in a diner some son of a bitch would decide 
to make a play for you, just to show off. 'Hey, Hubert 
Ward, introduce me to the girl friend/ And because 
they didn't recognize you they'd think only one thing." 

"That I was a chippie?" 

"Yes. Write your own script. If I had a fight, it'd get 
in the papers and maybe I'd be sued. If I didn't fight 
they'd all call me yellow. And you'd think I was yellow 
for not protecting you. If I try to do anything interesting, 
or worth-while, they say it's to get publicity. If I don't do 
interesting or worth-while things, I'm just another movie 
actor. No brains. No taste. You see, I'm not big enough 
yet to be allowed any independence. If you were going to 
be staying here, and had dates with me, I'd hear from 
the studio." 

"Why?" 

"They'd say, 'Lay off that society dame, Hubie. 
Start taking Sandra Stafford out.' Sandra's in my next pic- 
ture. Publicity." 

"Well, do you like her? She's pretty." 

"Very pretty — and living with a press agent named 
Murray Bax, who happens to be a friend of mine. I was in 
a picture with Sandra and I made an honest play for her 
till Murray wised me up. He's separated from his wife, 
back in New York, and living with Sandra in Laurel Can- 
yon." 

170 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Sounds primitive." 

"Laurel Canyon? It isn't. It's all culture in their 
house. Thousands of books. Symphony records. Socialist 
magazines. I'd take her to the Grove, drive her home, and 
then Murray and I'd sit and talk till it was time for them 
to go to bed. Next day in the papers, Sandra Stafford and 
Hubert Ward at the Grove again. So if you read about 
Sandra and I having a big romance, that's the romance. 
By this time the columnists know about Sandra and Mur- 
ray, but they print it anyway. And laugh at me because 
they know I'm not getting anything." 

"You're not getting anything? Oh." 

"I'm not even getting a goodnight kiss." 

"But all the actresses aren't living with Murray Baxes." 

"Thank God." 

"I see." 

"Don't be haughty about it." 

"Not haughty. Just conventional." 

"What do you expect me to do?" 

"I expect you to find some Sandra Stafford that isn't 
living with a Murray Bax." 

"Well, that's what I do do." 

"'Do do do, what you done done done be-fore, 
baby,' " she sang. 

He laughed. "I love you," he said. 

"Just as soon you didn't say that," she said. 

"Oh. All right," he said. 

There was a brief silence, and then she said, "I guess 
we ought to think about turning around." 

171 



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JOHN O HARA 

"All right," he said. Expertly he made a U-turn with- 
out slackening speed, and they were headed toward Los 
Angeles. He began to whistle the Gershwin "Do-Do-Do," 
and he continued to whistle it without being aware of it. 
For ten minutes he whistled it. 

"I have that record, played by George Gershwin him- 
self ," she said. 

"What record? Oh, 'Do-Do-Do.' I didn't know he 
made a record of it," he said. 

"It's a piano solo. Columbia, I think." 

"Is that so? I must get it." 

"It's not a new record, you know." 

"Oh, I can get it through the studio. You can get 
anything through the studio." 

"How convenient. A Sandra Stafford without a Mur- 
ray Bax?" 

"Oh, that's no problem. Ill look around and see 
who they have under contract." 

"They put them under contract, do they?" 

"Seven years." 

"They must be worn out after seven years." 

He laughed. "And you call yourself conventional! 
That's the kind of a crack you'd never hear from Ruth 
St. Alban." 

"Thank you very much. I'm sure you intended that 
as a compliment." 

"Why of course." 

"Are we having a quarrel?" 

"Of course not, Nina. How could anyone quarrel 
with you? How could anyone ant/thing with you? Have 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

you read a book called A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest 
Hemingway?" 

"Yes, he comes from Chicago. " 

"At the ending he says something about it was like 
saying goodbye to a statue." 

"I remember. It was — " 

"With you it's like saying hello to a statue. No, 
we're not having a quarrel. Me, a dumb movie actor? I 
don't want to mislead you. I read the book because I'd 
like to play the part of Lieutenant Henry." 

"I'm sure you'd be very good." 

"So am I, but I'm not a big-enough dumb movie ac- 
tor." 

"You will be." 

"That man we saw killed tonight. Charley Simmons." 

"Yes?" 

"He knew all about me, and he kept it to himself. 
The kind of things he knew about me would have kept 
me out of that crowd. They're all up from nowhere, those 
people. But they're up. I'm not up. Only part way. And 
there are some that are farther up than I am, much far- 
ther, but they never made it with that crowd." 

"I don't follow you. What are you leading up to?" 

"I'm not sure. Not even sure if I'm leading up to any- 
thing." 

"It has something to do with Mr. Simmons not tell- 
ing what he knew about you." 

"Yes. And with his state of mind. And with my being 
a dumb movie actor. I wish we could drive all night and 
I could talk to you." 

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JOHN O HARA 

"I'd like to help you, but that's impossible." 

"I know." 

"But do you want to stop for a little while and talk?" 

"Would you let me? I won't make a pass at you, I 
promise you that." 

"I know that." 

He stopped the car at the edge of a town, under a 
street light. He got out and opened his bag and ex- 
changed his dinner coat for a tweed jacket that latched 
at the throat. 

"You were cold?" she said. 

"A little." They lit cigarettes, and then, beginning 
with the suicide of his father, he told her truthfully the 
story of his past ten years. He talked for more than an 
hour. They were interrupted by a deputy sheriff in a car. 

"You folks in trouble?" 

"Just talking," said Hubert Ward. He handed his 
driver's license to the sheriff. 

"I thought I recognized you," said the sheriff. "You 
did right to park under a light. We had some lover's-lane 
stickups this past month, you probably read about. Tell 
you, Mr. Ward, if you just want to talk I suggest about 
a quarter mile down the road you can park in front of our 
headquarters and nobody '11 bother you there." 

Hubert Ward started his car and followed the sheriff, 
who waved to him and drove off. "A nice cop," said Hu- 
bert Ward. "Where was I?" 

"You had talked yourself into a job in a play. Ruskin 
got you a room in a hotel." 

He resumed the story and continued until he was 

174 



THE BIG LAUGH 

able to summarize his motion picture career with the 
naming of the pictures and the stars he played with, his 
acceptance in the power group, and the onset of restless- 
ness and boredom. "And tonight one of the nicest guys 
in the whole business is dead. I don't know how much of 
it is my fault. Probably a lot." 

She made no immediate comment. She smoked her 
cigarette. "Most of this was confession," she said. "But 
the only part you seem sorry about is Simmons and his 
wife, and that's the only part you skipped over. You had 
an affair with her. That is, you slept with her just once. 
That must have been very recently." 

"Yes." 

"And that's the only thing I want to ask you about. 
When did you sleep with her?" 

"Yesterday afternoon." 

She nodded. "Yes. I guess I could have told that. She 
was very possessive. And she had every right to be, after 
being faithful to him all those years. But I don't think 
you'd better see her again, unless you plan to marry her." 

"I don't plan to marry her. I told you this messy story 
because some day I hope to marry you." 

"I realized that, halfway through it. Called making 
a clean breast of it. Heaven knows there was no other 
sane reason for painting such an ugly picture of one- 
self." 

"No, nothing anybody else says can top what I've 
told you." 

"What a strange way to express it, but I guess that's 
theatrical language." 

175 



JOHN O HARA 

«T, • » 

It IS. 

"You make me long for the humdrum life of subur- 
ban Chicago. The only trouble is, it isn't so humdrum, 
not when I think of some of my friends. And maybe it 
could have happened to me. If Wayne — my husband — 
had ever been untrue to me, I don't know what I'd have 
done. If he had been I'd have been so desolated that I 
couldn't have gone on living — but you do go on living, 
and I've known girls like myself. Terribly in love with 
their husbands. Then the husband makes a slip, and the 
girl almost seems to have been waiting for that one slip, 
to give her an excuse. Naturally I'm thinking of one in par- 
ticular. And what an unholy mess she's made of her life. 
For five years she'd hardly dance with anyone but her 
husband, and then she discovered that he'd had an affair 
with an art student. You'd hardly call it an affair. Two 
weekends on his boat with a friend of his and another art 
student. But it was enough, and who am I to judge?" 

"In this case, you are the judge. You're the whole 
works. Judge and jury. I told you about myself so that you 
would judge." 

"Hubert Ward, you told me about yourself so that — 
you sort of tied my hands. You disarmed me. You make 
it impossible, or tried to make it impossible, for me to 
judge you without making me seem like a prissy old 
maid." 

"No, that wasn't my intention." 

"Well, maybe it wasn't your intention. Possibly it 
wasn't. But that's the effect. You've made a full confes- 
sion of all the bad things about yourself, and therefore 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

I'm supposed to be lenient. But youve been or done just 
about everything that in my opinion constitutes being a 
complete son of a bitch. The last time I used that expres- 
sion was about a gangster that poured gasoline all over 
a horse and set fire to it." 

"Good company you put me in." 

"No, you're not in that company. Just happens I don't 
often swear. Anyway, telling me all about your sins and 
peccadillos, you came very close to bragging several times. 
And no penitence. No penitence except over Mr. Simmons. 
Even the Catholics are supposed to feel sorry when they 
confess. I got that from your namesake, the Ward girl." 

"Well — there I am." 

"I know. And you're putting it all up to me. Do I see 
you again, knowing all about you? Or don't I? I'm afraid 
the answer is no." 

"Okay, Nina," he said. He started the engine, which 
was set low in the chassis and gave off a heavy sound. 

"I'm sorry," she said. "But you know I'm right. We're 
worlds apart." 

He put the car in gear and eased it forward. "You 
don't have to say any more," he said. "As a matter of fact, 
I don't want to hear any more." 

"You won't listen if I talk?" 

"This windshield folds down. If I fold it I couldn't 
hear you even if I wanted to." 

"Not if you went fast, but if you went slowly." 

"But we're not going to go slowly. I'll have you home 
in a half an hour." 

"All in one piece, I hope." 

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JOHN O HARA 

"Don't worry about my driving. I've only killed one 
person, so far." 

Neither spoke again until he drew up to the Barley 
house. They got out and she took off his polo coat and 
handed it to him. "That was a horrible thing to say," she 
said. 

"What?" 

"That you've only killed one person." 

"You've been thinking about that all the time?" 

"Yes. Goodnight, and goodbye." 

"Goodnight and goodbye it is." 

"Just a minute, Mr. Ward. Young lady." 

They turned in the direction of a flashlight beam. 

"Magruder, coroner's office. Few questions I'd like to 
ask you relative to what happened tonight." Magruder 
turned his flashlight on a badge in a leather case. He put 
the case back in his pocket, and directed the beam at 
their faces. "All right if we go inside?" 

"Why can't we talk out here?" said Hubert Ward. 

"We'd be more comfortable inside, but as far as that 
goes, Ward, I have a car here and we could go all the way 
into L. A. I was making it easier for the young lady and 
yourself, but that's the way you want to be, suit yourself." 

"Let's go inside," said Nina. 

"You're more sensible," said Magruder. "I've been 
waiting here for three hours, and I don't mind telling you, 
it was no pleasure. You're Mrs. Wayne Stephens, the sis- 
ter of Mrs. Dwight Barley. First name Nina. Age twenty- 
five. Occupation, housewife. Widow. Home town, Lake 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

Forest, Illinois. Maiden name, Nina Parsons. Ward, I got 
everything on you I need. Shall we go in?" 

The questions were deceptively simple but numerous, 
and Magruder wrote the answers slowly in a notebook. 
Then he began to ask the same questions over again, 
phrased slightly differently, but apparently essentially a 
repetition of the first examination. 

"Are you trying to trap us?" said Hubert Ward. 

"What makes you say that, Mr. Ward? Why would 
I want to trap you?" 

"Into giving different answers," said Hubert Ward. 

"Nobody's trying to trap anybody here, but why did 
you ask me that question?" 

"Listen, Magruder, obviously you asked Doris Ar- 
lington all these questions, and then you asked us and 
you got the same answers." 

"Why are you so sure I asked Doris Arlington the 
same questions? Or any questions? You been in com- 
munication with Miss Arlington?" 

"You know damn well I haven't." 

"I'm an officer of the law, Mr. Ward, and you don't 
have to swear at me. As it happens, there's one or two 
things about this death tonight, if we don't get satisfac- 
tory answers, this thing could drag on for weeks, making 
headlines. On my recommendation to my boss, this thing 
could be kept open, depending on his decision in the 
matter. Nobody wants that, do they? All right, you just 
let me do my work my own way, will you? We don't have 
Philo Vance in our office. Just fellows like myself, trying 
to protect the public and doing a pretty fair country job 

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JOHN O HARA 

of it. If we don't find any suspicious circumstances, it's 
accidental death. But if it isn't accidental death, I don't 
have to tell you what the papers will make of it." 

"They will anyway," said Hubert Ward. 

"How can they? We saw him fall, and he was killed 
instantly," said Nina. 

"Mm-hmm. All right. Let's go over one or two of these 
things once again. The last thing you heard Mr. Simmons 
say was something about the railing, putting the railing 
somewhere. Can I have that again, Mrs. Stephens? Just 
remember it the way it was, don't try to repeat what you 
told me. We're all human and memory plays strange 
tricks." 

Half an hour later Magruder closed his notebook, 
put it in his inside breast pocket, and gently slapped his 
coat above the pocket. "I guess that will do it, for tonight 
anyway. Understand you were planning to go back East 
next week, Mrs. Stephens. Your sister said." 

"Yes, can't I go?" 

"I don't think there'll be an inquest. I think you can 
count on going. We'll let you know definitely some time 
tomorrow. Thank you for your cooperation, but you know 
how these things are? We have to weigh every morsel, 
every scrap." 

"I know, Mr. Magruder. I know. My husband was 
killed in an accident." 

"Yes. I didn't want to bring it up, but I knew that. 
This is certainly a nice place your sister has here, and Mr. 
Barley. You know I had a brother-in-law played football 
against your brother-in-law. My brother-in-law played 

180 



THE BIG LAUGH 

guard for Minnesota. Two games they were in against 
each other. Mr. Barley and I got talking, but I knew he 
wanted to go to bed or we'd have been here all night, 
swapping stories. Very nice fellow. Well, goodnight." 

They saw him to the door, and watched his car light 
up and drive away. "There were two of them. Magruder 
and someone else." 

"Yes. Why?" 

"I don't know. I never even saw his car, did you?" 

"No." 

"Ill bet they've been wondering where we were." 

"I'll make you some coffee," she said. 

"No, never mind, thanks. I've caused you enough 
trouble. You realize your name is going to be in the pa- 
pers. The Chicago papers." 

"I was wondering about that." 

"It's not going to be so easy to shake me, Nina. You'll 
find out when you go back to Chicago. They'll all want 
to know how you happened to be there with Doris Arling- 
ton and me, just when Charley fell. You said we were 
worlds apart. We're not any more. You'll find out." 

"I think you exaggerate. But let me give you some 
coffee." 

"All right. God knows, I don't want to go." 

She went home to Lake Forest on schedule, and a 
week later she wrote to him. "You were right," she wrote, 
in part. "I don't mind so much for myself, but the other 
children, in all probability encouraged by their mothers, 
continually ask my daughter for details concerning Hu- 
bert Ward . . . My own friends have taken to Iddding' 

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JOHN O H AR A 

me about Hubert Ward, but behind the Tedding' are im- 
plications that I do not like. There is no doubt but that 
some of them believe that I was a very different person in 
California from the one they know here. I don't know 
which are worse — the men or the women . . . Have you 
started work on the aviation picture?" 

Their correspondence was regularly spaced: a letter 
from him would be answered a week later by a letter from 
her. Each letter had to be to some degree a reply to its 
predecessor; the contents of both were chatty and super- 
ficial, and expressed nothing of what he or she might 
be feeling. They were self-conscious about intimacies. She 
admitted that she looked for his name in the Hollywood 
gossip columns, and the first break in the regularity of 
their correspondence occurred after several of the col- 
umns reported that he was having a romance with Pa- 
tricia Stanford, the English actress who was making her 
American debut in Destroyers on Wings. Hubert Ward 
heard nothing for two weeks, and he found that Nina's let- 
ters, which of themselves had begun to bore him, had 
nevertheless become a part of his life. He guessed the rea- 
son for her silence, but he could not tell Nina that Patricia 
Stanford was nothing in his young life. Patricia Stanford 
was not quite nothing in his young life. She had willingly 
cooperated in the studio's suggestion for a publicity ro- 
mance with Hubert Ward, and she had immediately as- 
sumed that she was to go through all the motions of an 
affair. She was not at all reluctant; she had come to Holly- 
wood with his name on her private list of four or five ac- 
tors whom she would rather like to sleep with. For his 

182 



THE BIG LAUGH 



part she was beautiful and easy, and her manners and 
speech distinguished her from the pretty and easy Amer- 
ican girls he played around with. But he discovered that 
she was fascinated by scatological humor, particularly 
jokes about flatulence and uncontrollable bowel move- 
ments, which she exchanged with members of the camera 
and stage crews in a spirit of intestinal democracy. The 
technicians laughed with her, but when she was not look- 
ing they laughed at her and made the gesture of pulling 
the chain. Hubert Ward was delighted when she was com- 
pelled to break a date with him for a legitimate reason. 
"Nobody breaks dates with me," he said, and the affair 
was terminated, to the unhappiness of neither party. 

He had not gone to the gatherings of the power group 
after the death of Charley Simmons. He had stayed away 
from Charley's funeral on advice of Doris Arlington. 
"Maybe you'll be criticized, Hubie," said Doris. "But 
maybe you won't even be missed, there'll be so many 
there. And it isn't worth taking a chance." 

"What chance?" 

Doris took a deep breath to keep from losing her 
temper. "The chance of Mildred seeing you and making 
a scene. Mark her down as an enemy, because that's what 
she is. Ill never forget her holding Charley squashed 
against those tits of hers, and staring at you. She's gonna 
blame you the rest of her life. Stay away from her — unless 
you're in love with her, which you're not." 

After the convenient ending of the Patricia Stan- 
ford affair he had an impulse to see Doris Arlington. 

183 



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JOHN O HARA 

"What for?" said Doris. "I'll be glad to go out with you, 
Hubie, but strictly Platonic. I have somebody." 

"Hell, I know that. I hear he's part Cherokee." 

"All right. Thursday night. Pick me up around eight." 

"Beverly Derby? Ill have to reserve a table." 

"Not if you come in with me you won't, but all right." 

They ordered dinner after Doris had made her en- 
trance and distributed graciousness. "I hope you're not 
taking me out in the expectation of pumping me about 
Ken. How are you getting along?" 

"Fine. No practical jokes so far." 

"Lulling you into a false sense of security. You go on 
location on this thing, don't you?" 

"We have a week at the ranch, for some exteriors." 

"Will you be coming home nights, or are you staying 
out there?" 

"We're staying out there six nights." 

"Don't be surprised if you find a snake in your bed. 
If I were you I'd carry a pistol." 

"I do anyway, in costume." 

"Well, if you come across a snake in your bed shoot 
the God damn pistol, empty it. Then Ken will think you're 
a little crazy and he'll go easy on the jokes." 

"I'm glad I didn't try to pump you." 

"Oh, that was just a friendly warning. I'll talk about 
Ken Downey. What I hate is being pumped. Anyway, it's 
usually women that try to pump me about him. Let them 
find out for themselves. I did. Now, what's on your mind?" 

"You're so smart." 

"You bet I am. Is it Mildred?" 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"I haven't seen her or heard from her. I think she's in 
New York, I read somewhere.'' 

"She is. Charley's estate, and seeing the boy at Yale. 
Shell be gone for another two weeks. What about this 
English dame, Stanford? I met her the other night and 
she told a story I wouldn't tell to a plumber. And it was 
that kind of a story. I don't go for dirty stories much 
anyway, maybe because everybody expects me to have 
a repertory of them and I never remember a one. I'm more 
practical about that. If I want to go to the bathroom, 
I go. And if I want to go to bed with a man, I do. But I 
don't collect stories about it. I mean jokes. I have plenty 
of stories, but they're true ones, actual facts. I know one 
about you, now that I think of it. Did you get in bed with 
Ruth St. Alban one night and it turned out to be her 
maid, not Ruth?" 

"Yes." 

She imitated Ruth St. Alban's voice and enunciation: 
"'He was expecting somebody to be there, and I was 
just so tired but I couldn't disappoint him. So I asked Lot- 
tie if she'd mind, and she was thrilled? If I were a man 
I'd prefer Lottie, too." 

"I knew the difference right away." 

"It makes me wonder, how many guys have thought 
Ruth was wonderful with the lights out and it was Lottie 
all the time." 

"None." 

"How are you and Lottie since then? How did it af- 
fect her manner toward you?" 

185 



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JOHN O HARA 

"Oh, she gives me a little smile when nobody's look- 
ing, and I smile back." 

"Have you ever gone back for a retake, on purpose?" 

"No." ' 

"You draw the color line?" 

"Lottie has a boy friend, I think he's a middleweight. 
Anyway, a prizefighter. Ruth really oughtn't to tell that 
story, because the boy friend's very jealous. Lottie made 
me promise not to blab, and I never did. I guess I could 
go back for a retake, or could have. I wouldn't now, and 
anyway let's change the subject." 

"What's the matter? There's something eating you." 

"It's something I don't know anything about, a new 
experience for me. I may be falling in love." 

"Am I privileged to know this unfortunate creature?" 

"The girl we were with when Charley broke his 
neck." 

"A non-professional. She went back East, didn't she? 
Chicago or some place? I thought she went right back." 

"She did. I haven't seen her since that night. Spoken 
to her on the phone, just before she left. And we've been 
writing letters once a week or so, but that's stopped." 

"Then let it stop. She's too good for you. You 
shouldn't take a girl like that out of her kind of life, away 
from her friends, and dump her into this place. And that's 
what it would be. Marriage or nothing with her, if I'm 
any judge." 

"Good sound advice." 

"What if you told her that you'd laid a colored girl?" 

"I did tell her just about everything else." 

186 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"The truth? I've heard that you've been a bad boy, 
Hubie." 

"You mean in my past?" 

"Oh, nothing lately, if you don't count having an affair 
with Mildred Simmons." 

"Not admitting anything, Doris, but Mildred is surely 
old enough to take care of herself. If she had an affair with 
anybody, she knew what she was doing." 

"I agree with you. I was sore at you, but who am I 
to judge?" 

He smiled. 

"Well, who is anybody to judge, after all?" she re- 
peated. 

"That isn't what I was smiling at. Not the idea, but the 
words, the question. The girl I'm in love with said exactly 
the same thing when I gave her my life history. She also 
said I was a complete son of a bitch." 

"You didn't get anywhere, is my guess." 

"Did I sleep with her? No." 

"What about her husband? Or did I read in the paper 
that she was a widow? Yes, I did. She got children?" 

"A little girl, six or seven years old." 

"Money, probably." 

"Probably. Not poor. It takes money to live in Lake 
Forest, doesn't it?" 

"It did, I don't know if it still does. Of course the rich 
aren't as rich as they used to be. I just lent two thousand 
bucks to a man that a few years ago used to spend easily 
that much in a month, just calling me long distance. Ill 
never see it or riim again, but he spent plenty on me, 

187 



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JOHN O H AR A 

and not just jewelry. He used to take me to Saratoga, 
Palm Beach, the opening night of the opera. Kind of 
a chump in a way, but a nice chump. A gentleman. He 
knew all those Whitneys and Wideners, and he never gave 
me any of that horseshit about marrying me. He was 
single. But I realize now that he wasn't as rich as the peo- 
ple he went around with. He was having a high old time 
spending capital, and quite a bit of it he spent on me. So I 
let him have the two thousand and he got all choked up 
over the phone. He said he'd pay me back five hundred a 
year as soon as he got a job, but I know when that will be. 
Never. You've been pretty careful with yours, haven't 
you?" . 

"Yes. Still paying a hundred and fifty a month rent. 
I spend a little on clothes, but not like Georgie Raft 
or Menjou. I have no servants. I don't need any. Don't 
drink, don't gamble. One car, I bought second-hand from a 
writer out at Warners'. His wife wouldn't ride in it. She said 
it looked as if a steam-roller ran over it." 

"It does. She's right." 

"A fine Italian car. If I have to go some place in a 
limousine I hire one, and half the time the studio pays for 
it." 

"And you have no family." 

"I have a family, but they won't have me." 

"Yeah, I understand. In Hollywood that makes you — 
unique I guess is the word. I never knew anybody else out 
here that didn't have a family payroll. Your people must 
really have it in for you. What have you got? Your father 
was in prison or something?" 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"He committed suicide. I have a mother and a mar- 
ried sister, and an uncle. And a lot of cousins, some rich." 

"In other words, you're the black sheep. Think of that. 
I was the black sheep, too, but I was allowed to return to 
the fold. The minute I signed a contract they all moved to 
the Coast. My mother, my father, two brothers and their 
wives, my sister, and my grandfather that since died." 

"And they all went on the payroll?" 

"Like hell they did. I said I'd rent them a house in 
Van Nuys, but if they wanted to eat they had to work. Not 
a nickel from me. They soon got tired of all living in the 
same little bungalow in Van Nuys and the men went out 
and got jobs. Best thing I could have done for them. I sup- 
port my mother and father, but the boys are working and 
my sister opened a beauty parlor in Pasadena, and now she 
has a husband that she supports. I hardly ever see any of 
them. Once in a while a friend of theirs wants to visit a 
studio, and as long as it's some lot where I'm not working, 
I arrange it for them. I give them a hundred bucks apiece 
at Christmas, and the hell with them. My old man keeps a 
scrapbook, and gives it to me for Christmas every year. 
Clippings about myself. Schallert, Parsons, Harrison Car- 
roll. You'll be in it this year, on account of Charley Sim- 
mons. My mother bakes cakes for weddings and anniver- 
saries in the neighborhood. She charges a litde extra be- 
cause the cakes are baked by Doris Arlington's mother. 
A hell of a recommendation for a wedding cake, if they 
ever stopped to think. But they're all right, my family. 
They came here to sponge off me, and I said nuts to that. 
When I ran away from Spring Hill, P-A, at the age of six- 

189 



JOHN O H AR A 

teen, they didn't even bother to get the cops after me." 

"Who did you run away with?" 

"You won't believe me." 

"Sure I will. Who? TeU me?" 

"A trombone player in Sousa's Band. He came from 
Spring Hill and he was home on vacation, and I had my 
first high heels. Black lisle stockings. Middy blouse and 
skirt. Took me out to the picnic grove and I got exactly 
what I was looking for. I followed him to Chicago and then 
he left me. He didn't walk out on me, but I couldn't travel 
with the band." 

"Didn't your family know you'd gone away with him?" 

"I didn't go away with him. I followed him. No, I never 
made any trouble for him. Karl Botzhoffer. Romantic 
name, wasn't it? But he was a looker. I used to see his 
picture in ads for trombones, but I think he must have died. 
I asked about him on the set one day when they had a 
lot of musicians, and they all seemed to think he was 
dead. All the brass section recognized his name right away. 
Karl Botzhoffer. Sure. Well, he started me out in my 
career." 

"I thought Griffith discovered you." 

"That's the story. But Karl Botzhoffer discovered me, 
in the picnic grove in Spring Hill, P-A. Tender memories. 
Mickey Neilan gave me my first job, and then D. W. dis- 
covered me. That is, he gave me a small part. Harry Zim- 
mermann was the first to put me under contract. I hear 
Harry's in hot water. Some Eastern writer is suing him 
for sixty million dollars for plagiarism. Or six hundred mil- 
lion, I don't know. Harry shouldn't read so many books. 

190 






THE BIG LAUGH 

Hell read a book by Theodore Dreiser or Sherwood Ander- 
son or one of those, and then a week or two later he has a 
wonderful idea for a picture. Tells it to Martha Kensington 
and Joe MacDuffie. They write an original around the 
idea, Harry buys it for the studio, gets a kickback from 
Martha and Joe, and lo and behold, they have a big new 
picture on the way. A Harry Zimmermann Production, no 
less. He gets away with it most of the time, but one of these 
days some writer is going to sue for an accounting, instead 
of just taking five or ten thousand in settlement. And then 
Harry '11 really be in trouble, because no studio wants any 
outsider to have a look at their books." 

"How do you know all these things?" 

"I like money, and the things Ken used to tell me 
about studio finances would curl your hair. If you keep 
your ears open and look dumb you can learn a lot, too. Par- 
ties at Mildred and Charley's, my house, the rest of the 
crowd. You knew Joe Ziffrin was getting Charley's old job." 

"I thought he was out." 

"People thought so because they thought Mildred 
would vote her stock against him. The trouble with that 
was, Mildred has no stock. U. S. Films, Incorporated, had 
options to buy back Charley's stock if and when he died. 
And they exercised that option. So Ziffrin snuck off to New 
York and London and talked to the principal stockholders, 
and in a week or two you'll see the announcement. Poor 
Charley must be spinning." 

"How do you know this?" 

"My part-Cherokee, as you call him. He was talking 
to his people in London yesterday and they happened to 

191 



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JOHN O H AR A 

mention it. Then he happened to mention it to me, so I 
called my broker this morning. I expect to make a nice 
little profit." 

"How about if I bought some?" 

"I advise against it. You never play the market, do 
your 

"Not so far." 

"Don't start now. I bought some U. S. Films stock be- 
cause I had a good tip. And I'm going to be told when to get 
out. But you won't know when to get out, and I won't 
tell you. Playing the market isn't only knowing when to 
buy. It's knowing when to sell. Stay out of it, Hubie. I don't 
want that on my conscience." 

"All right." 

"And don't blab about Ziffrin. There have been rumors, 
but only a few know he went to London." 

"You're a hell of an advisor." 

"I know. You wanted to be told to marry this girl, and 
you want to get rich quick in the market. Well, if you want 
me to, I'll pay for the dinner. I don't want you to be out four 
dollars, poor boy." 

"It'll be closer to eight, with the tip. And now where 
do we go?" 

"Do you want to come back to the house and gab for 
a while? What time are you on the set?" 

"Tomorrow, half-past seven." 

"Means you get up at six." 

"Five-thirty. I'll drop you at your house." 

She signed some autographs, he signed some but 
fewer, and he drove her to her house. He walked to the 

192 



THE BIG LAUGH 

door with her and she put out her hand. "Thanks, Hubie, 
I enjoyed myself," she said. 

"So did I, to tell you the truth." 

"We could be friends. It might be very good for both 
of us." 

"But if you said come in, I'd come in. And if you said 
stay, I'd stay." 

"Well, I should hope so. But I'm not going to say it, 
now or any other time. On that basis, will you take me out 
again soon?" 
Sure. 

There was a flashing moment of opportunity, but it 
passed. She looked away from him. "Goodnight, Hubie," 
she said, and turned her back. 

"Goodnight, Doris," he said. 

She closed the heavy door firmly and he went back to 
his car. 

Sometime during the next two or three weeks — one 
day, one afternoon, late one night, early one morning — the 
actors and the camera and stage crews on the set, and then 
the people who did not ordinarily go on the set, and then 
the studio, and then a goodly number of the men and 
women who made their living in motion picture produc- 
tion, and friends of assistant directors, and waiters at the 
Brown Derbies, and dealers in second-hand foreign cars, 
and high-priced prostitutes, and some of the writers of the 
chatter columns, and Vine Street astrologists, and Mildred 
Simmons, and a one-legged man who sold newspapers, 
and a Catholic priest in a poor parish in downtown Los 

193 



JOHN O HARA 

Angeles, and Barney Morse, who played the accordion at 
stylish parties, and Philip W. Carstairs, who was conduct- 
ing a school for acting in a bungalow on North Cahuenga, 
and Martin Ruskin in an office in the Bond Building in 
New York City — they all began to hear the very first hints 
that a miracle was happening on the set of Destroyers on 
Wings. No one was saying much; it was too early to tell; 
and the rumor was actually a hundred small rumors, not 
yet generally known or talked about in large gatherings 
or talked about very much in person-to-person conversa- 
tions. Sometimes the rumor consisted of a single sentence: 
"They say watch out for a performance Hubert Ward is 
giving in Ken Downey's picture," and ended there. 

But people began to want to go on the set; actors from 
other studios as well as men and women on the lot; make-up 
men and women, writers under contract, agents of other 
people in the Destroyers company. "How it got around I 
don't know," said Ken Downey. "But let's keep the 
bastards the hell out of here. And that includes you, 
Eddie." 

Edmund Greenhill had directed a few pictures be- 
fore becoming a supervisor. "I have no desire to interfere, 
not the slightest," he said. "Put up a sign if you wish. Visi- 
tors barred." 

"That's what I don't want to do if I can help it. That's 
announcing it." 

"Well, you're not asking me to have Murray Bax 
spread the rumor that Ward stinks. That I won't do." 

"That I'm not asking. Just discourage the front office 

194 






THE BIG LAUGH 

from dropping in, and tell Murray no interviews till we're 
finished shooting." 

"That's easy enough. Personally I hate the son of a 
bitch and always did, but if you're getting a picture out of 
him . . ." 

"It's not only me, Eddie. I hate all actors, not 
just Ward." 

"That's what I thought." 

"And this prick isn't really an actor, but here we go 
again, the unbeatable combination, the actor for the part. 
Ward has sense enough to realize that I can only do 
so much, and after that it's up to him. To play a shitheel, a 
real yellow-belly, the actor has to let go. He can't hold back 
and protect himself, so the people in Peoria will know he's 
only acting. If he does that, he might, as well step out of 
character and wink at the God damn camera. But Ward 
isn't holding back. He's playing the shitheel that he really 
is, as if he just discovered he was a shitheel." 

"I could have told him that a long time ago." 

"It wouldn't have done any good. He had to discover 
it for himself, and maybe be a little proud of it. Maybe 
that's it, I don't know. But for instance yesterday, the of- 
ficers' mess sequence, where Norman Travis gives him a 
punch in the mouth and he doesn't fight back. I said to 
Ward, 'Now, Hubie, we're going to come in on you and hold 
on you for ten seconds. Ten seconds, that's a long time. 
And you're holding your hand to your mouth. I don't want 
you to take your hand away from your mouth and look at 
the blood. We'll do that later, but for ten seconds it has to 
show in your eyes, that you're a coward and can't make 

195 



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JOHN O HARA 

yourself fight back. All the other pilots have seen you take 
a punch, and they're waiting to see what you do.' He 
stopped me. 1 know, I know, Ken/ he said. 'J ust let me do 
it.' So he said he was ready and we began to roll. He got up 
from the floor, holding his mouth, and I held on him for six- 
teen seconds. And I'm going to use it all. One take, and it 
was perfect. Absolutely perfect. He got everything in it 
I wanted him to, and more. The shame and the pain. We 
faked the punch, of course, but you won't know that when 
you see it. You'll think Norman really punched him, not 
because of the action, but because of what goes on inside 
that face. I wonder if this guy can ever do anything else? I 
doubt it, but he won't have to. They're going to remember 
this performance for a long time." 

"I guess maybe you're right. Norman was in to see 



55 

me. 



"I knew he would be. He's been trying to talk to me, 
too, but I won't let him. He wanted Ward to play the 
yellow-belly, and now he's got him. The troublemaker is 
Stanford. Norman, all he cares about is top billing and the 
most money, but Stanford wised him up about Ward. She's 
an actress and she's sore at Ward for giving her the air. 
She knows Ward's going to walk away with this opera, and 
I think you'd better have a talk with her. She's bad news, 
that dame. I'll tell her off when the picture's finished, but 
you better talk to her now, today." 

"What shall I tell her?" 

"Just say to her, 'Listen, you English cunt, you stop 
fucking around with Ken Downey's picture.' * 

"You can just hear me saying that." 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"You know, the funny thing is, it might work." 

"Maybe, but I couldn't say it to her. I honestly 
couldn't." 

"I know. But you can get the idea across to her that 
Hollywood money is very nice, and she's a long way from 
stardom. Her first American picture, and could be her last." 

"These are tilings I can say." 

From the earliest public exhibitions of the picture 
there was never the faintest doubt that Destroyers on 
Wings was a hit. The dogfights between German and Royal 
Flying Corps planes, the heroism and horseplay of the gal- 
lant young pilots, and the romance between Norman 
Travis and Patricia Stanford (as the Canadian athlete at 
Oxford and the daughter of an English lord, respectively) 
were highly satisfactory to the audiences in Glendale and 
Long Beach; but the astonishing tributes to acting by Hu- 
bert Ward as a cowardly weakling confused the studio. 
Comments on acting were rarely made by the Glendale 
and Long Beach audiences, and when made they usually 
referred to performances by character actors, horses, and 
dogs. "Hated Hubert Ward but it was good acting . . . 
Hubert Ward a good actor . . . Good acting by Hubert 
Ward . . . For acting give me H. Ward. Makes others 
look like an amateur . . ." The comment cards from the 
Glendale and Long Beach theaters were not strewn about 
the theater lobbies; an abnormally high percentage of the 
audiences wrote on the cards and registered their critical 
convictions by dropping them in the baskets hopefully 
provided for the purpose. 

"What I always said about Hubie Ward," said Harry 

197 



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JOHN O H AR A 

Zimmermann, now a maker of bread-and-butter Westerns 
at RKO. "A fortune for the studio that put him in the 
right part." 

Eddie Greenhill telephoned Hubert Ward after the 
Glendale and Long Beach previews. "If you don't have an 
engagement tomorrow — next day, come have luncheon 
with me in my office?" 

"Fine, Eddie. Tomorrow?" 

"Good. Excellent. Excellent, Hubie." 

"Eddie?" 

"Yes, Hube?" 

"Now is it all right for me to drive my car on the lot?" 

"Why, of course, Hubie. Ill issue instructions." 

"No. Just countermand the old ones, that said I 
couldn't bring my car on the lot." 

"You'll have a special place of your own, with your 
name on it. Just say where you want it and itll be there 
tomorrow. Now don't make it too tough, Hubie." 

"How about next to the bootblack's stand?" 

"That's reasonable. I was afraid you were going to 
want Norman Travis's place, and that's in his contract." 

"Oh, I wouldn't do that, Eddie. I'm not a star yet." 

"A mere technicality now," said Greenhill. 

Luncheon began with caviar and champagne and 
GreenhhTs disappointment that Hubert Ward did not like 
caviar or champagne. "But you go right ahead, Eddie," 
said Hubert Ward. 

"Well, being's it's open," said Greenhill. "I hope you 
like filet mignon." 

"I do." 

198 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"That's what I ordered." 

"And what do you want me to do, Eddie? Why am I 
here?" 

"You can be blunt, all right. Well, why not? No use 
beating about the bush, they say. Hubie, New York is beck- 
oning to Hubert Ward. It's in your contract you have to go, 
but forget that. You been in the business long enough now 
that you can foresee that the studio's going to renegotiate 
your present ticket. We want you happy and content." 

"I know. And my present contract expires in January. 
We're on the last option, Eddie. Which is why you didn't 
mind putting me in Destroyers on Wings as a miserable 
shitheel." 

"Well, did it turn out good or did it turn out bad? Re- 
sults are what you have to take into consideration, Hubie. 
This lot is where they gave you your best role of your 
career." 

"Accidentally. And my worst, one after another. I 
never got the girl if there was a big star in the picture. And 
if I got the girl it was never anybody like Doris Arlington or 
Ruth St. Alban." 

"Be big, Hubie. Be big, don't be picayune. This studio 
is your home lot, your home base. You don't want to be 
picayunie now, especially now. Wouldn't you rather be the 
king here, where you made so many pictures, good, bad 
and indifferent? That's the way I'd feel about it if I were 
you." 

"Fortunately you're not me," said Hubert Ward. 
"But I don't want to talk contract. I pay a man ten percent 

199 



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JOHN O HARA 

for that, and it's a long time since he earned it. What about 
New York?" 

"Beckoning. They're getting calls for you. Interviews. 
Publicity. Your contract says you have to go if we tell you 
to, but that's not what I'm doing. We won't make you. We 
won't invoke the contract. But on the other hand, all ex- 
penses paid. The shows. The night spots. And you'll have it 
all to yourself. By that I mean, Hubie, if you say you'll do it, 
we won't send Norman or Stanford. It's all yours, a clear 
field. Murray Bax says this'd be your first trip since you've 
been in pictures. Tell you what we could do. Stanford and 
you I know were pretty cozy there for a while. If you de- 
cided you wanted to take her with you — we'd pay her ex- 
penses also." 

"Thanks, but no thanks." 

"Well, just an idea. There'll be plenty waiting for 
you there in New York, especially with the build-up we'll 
give you before you get there." 

"What about Chicago?" 

"Listen, Chicago, sure! I didn't even think to suggest 
it. We didn't even dare to hope for Chicago, but if you'll 
go — mister!" 

"All right. A week in New York, and a week in 
Chicago." 

"We'll get to work on that right away. The week of 
the twentieth in New York, and the week of the twenty- 
seventh in Chicago?" 

"Chicago first." 

"Any way you like. How about Cleveland? Detroit? 
St. Louis? Hubie, you know we could book you into 

200 



THE BIG LAUGH 

theaters for personal appearances in all those places and 
you could make yourself a nice piece of change." 

"No. A week in Chicago, a week in New York. No 
theater bookings." 

The photographers and the press kept him well over 
an hour in the trainshed in Chicago, and the grateful 
studio publicity people said no star, not even Joan Craw- 
ford, had been so cooperative. He posed until the photog- 
raphers ran out of ideas, and by the time he had had a 
bath the early editions were delivered to his room and he 
was on Page One of them all, with pictures, stories, or 
both. The studio had assigned a publicity man, Frank 
Terry, as all-around equerry. 

"This phone's going to be ringing like this all day," 
said Terry. "But 111 brush them off for you." 

"There's one I don't want you to brush off. If a Mrs. 
Stephens phones, I want to speak to her." 

"Oh, Christ. A lady by that name did call. She said it 
was personal, but they all say that." 

"Did she leave a number or anything?" 

"No, nothing." 

"Can you get me a car that I can drive myself?" 

"Sure, but how do you think you're going to get out 
of the hotel? They're out there in the corridor now. High 
school kids. Elderly women. Some queers." 

"Before the picture opens?" 

"Oh, we did a job here in Chicago, Mr. Ward. If you 
gave us a little more time you'd be the biggest thing since 
Paul Ash." 

201 



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JOHN O HARA 

"Get me a car. Something like a Buick coach, or a 
Chevy. Inconspicuous." 

Terry arranged for the car. "This is some private thing 
and I guess you don't want me along, but 111 tell you what 
we do. We go to the elevators. Don't wear an overcoat or a 
hat. The fans will follow you. We wait for an Up elevator. 
We go up a couple floors, get off, and then take a Down 
elevator. Well go all the way down to the Grill without 
stopping. They know me here. And you can wait down 
there some place while I get you your hat and coat. The 
car's parked at the side entrance." 

"Never mind my hat and coat." 

Hubert Ward evaded the fans and followed Terry's 
plan. He got to the car without being recognized, simply by 
holding a handkerchief to his nose. And then he drove to 
Lake Forest. 

She was home. A maid answered the doorbell and 
said, "My goodness. Ain't you Hubert Ward the movie star?" 

"Yes. I'd like to see Mrs. Stephens." 

It was not necessary to announce him. Nina, in a 
blue silk-and-wool suit, came out of a side room with a 
sheaf of papers in her hand, an opened fountain pen 
clenched in her teeth. She saw him and at first she frowned, 
unable to trust her recognition of him. 

"Hello," he said. 

"Why hello. Hello. 9 ' She smiled. "It is you." 

"It's me." He went to her and put his arms around her 
and kissed her, although they had never kissed before. 

"Let me put these things down," she said. She laid 
the papers and pen on a table, and with her hands now 

202 



THE BIG LAUGH 

free she put her arms around him and held him close, and 
put back her head to be kissed again. She held on to his 
hand and led him to the room from which she had first 
emerged. 

"Did you know that I telephoned you?" she said. 

"Yes I did. Did you know that the only reason I came 
to Chicago was to see you?" 

"No, I didn't." 

"Well, it was." 

"I was just checking some bills for The Children's Aid 
Society," she said, for something to say. 

"Did they come out right?" 

"I don't know. I haven't finished. How long are you 
going to be in Chicago?" 

"As long as it takes me to persuade you to leave it." 

"Well — goodness." She sat on the sofa. 

"You stopped writing to me," he said. 

"Yes." She brushed something off her skirt. "Yes, I 
stopped." 

"But just now, when you saw me — " 

"I know. I know," she said. 

"That's the only reason I came to Chicago." 

"Well, I don't know. I really don't know." 

"Yes you do, Nina." 

"I thought about it. I admit I thought a lot about it. 
But then I read about you and some English actress, and 
that brought me to my senses." 

"I don't get the Chicago papers. Was there anything 
in them about you? You and some meat-packer, some stock- 
broker?" 

203 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"I've seen a few people, if that's what you mean. I've 
been going out more." 

"You've completely lost your tan." 

"Yes, I know. We're going to Florida next week and 
I'll get it back." 

"Who's going to Florida?" 

"Well, actually just me, but there I'm meeting some 
friends of mine that have a boat, and we're going cruising." 

"Who's the man?" 

"Oh — a lawyer from downstate." 

"Then I have practically no time at all, have I?" 

She had recovered her poise. "That was just something 
to say." 

"You know better than that." 

She shook her head. "Different worlds, Hubert. Not 
so much different worlds as wanting to live different ways. 
I was in town for lunch today and I saw your picture." 

"It's in every paper in Chicago. I made sure none of 
them missed me. I wanted to make sure you didn't fail to 
be informed of my presence in your great city." 

"Only saw the one paper. But then when I telephoned 
you I was rather glad you didn't come to the phone." 

"What would you have said if I had come to the 
phone?" 

"Oh — welcome to Chicago. How are you. Have you 
seen my sister. Chit-chat." 

"It was much better this way." 

"Was it? Yes, it was more honest. But honesty isn't 
always the best policy. It isn't always the only policy. You'll 
be here a few days and I'm leaving next week. If you'd 

204 



THE BIG LAUGH 

telephoned me I'm not sure I'd have seen you, and that 
would have been that." 

"Do you love me, Nina?" 

"I haven't heard you say that you love me." 

"But I do." 

"Yes, I love you. At least I guess it's love. The cus- 
tomary symptoms. I thought about you all the time, even 
when I didn't want to." 

"Regardless of the messy things in my life, as you 
call them?" 

"No, not regardless of them. But in spite of them. I 
don't happen to want messy things in my life, but they hap- 
pen to friends of mine, people I like. And in your life I 
guess it's par for the course. Hollywood. I guess you 
couldn't avoid it if you wanted to — and why should you 
want to? If women, girls, want to make fools of themselves. 
It's very easy for a woman to get a man, for a while at least. 
But how long does that last? And is it worth it? It wouldn't 
be to me." 

"Did you have an affair with the lawyer from down- 
state?" 

"No. But he'll be on the cruise, and I knew what I was 
doing when I said I'd go." 

"You wouldn't consider that messy?" 

"He's asked me to marry him. And there's no very 
good reason why I shouldn't." 

"You don't love him." 

"No, but I'm sure I would, eventually." 

"Then I got here just in time." 

"I'm not sure that you did, Hubert. You may think me 

205 



JOHN O HARA 

a cold-blooded woman if you like, but it doesn't really mat- 
ter what you think of me, does it? This man, I know, thinks 
I had an affair with you, for instance. A lot of people here 
do. But in those matters I don't really care much what peo- 
ple think. It's what I think that matters. I can have a man if 
I want one. Or men. They try. I'm not repulsive. And I 
will. I know what happiness there is with a man. And the 
physical. I'm a very healthy person. But I don't want just 
the physical without the rest, or the companionship with- 
out the physical. I have a very high opinion of myself and 
I want to keep it. I think it was instilled in me by my father. 
He was quite a ladies' man, but possibly for that very rea- 
son I believed what he told me about promiscuity. Con- 
sequently I've been to bed with exactly one man in my 
whole life. Some of my best friends don't believe that, but 
they can think what they please." 

"You were married very young." 

"Yes, I was eighteen. But I'm sure I could have held 
out much longer. I was completely faithful to my husband, 
and I didn't go dashing about when I was free to, after he 
died." 

"Well, do you want to risk having Chicago convinced 
that you had an affair with me?" 

"Meaning, will I see you again? Yes. I have two dinner 
engagements toward the end of the week, possibly three." 

"With the lawyer from downstate?" 

"One of them is with him and possibly the third. He 
has to finish up some last-minute work." 

"Will you have dinner with me the other nights?" 

"If you want me to." 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"That's what I came here for." 

"Yes, it'll be nice to be with you/ 

"You know what I'm going to do, don't you?" 

"I guess I do, but I'll be on my guard." 

"And you won't mind the publicity? There'll be plenty 
of it." 

"I'd almost rather have it than secrecy. By the way, 
what did you ever do to a man called Phil Sturtevant? He 
works for Time, and let me tell you, he certainly cautioned 
me about you." 

"He's the one I gypped out of a month's rent. Remem- 
ber my life story?" 

"You must have done something more than that to 
make him hate you so much." 

"I did. I humiliated him in front of a couple of dames." 

"Oh, then I can understand it. I never knew what to 
say to him." 

"Did you defend me, Nina?" 

"You could call it that, I suppose. He was so vague. 
He just said you were the worst man in New York, had a 
terrible record going back to prep school. But he was 
vague about it, and I said you can't say a man is the worst 
man in New York without giving some details. All he'd say 
was that if I was infatuated with you, there was no point in 
giving details." 

"Were you infatuated with me?" 

"Actually he said hypnotized." 

"Were you hypnotized?" 

"Maybe he did say infatuated, too. Yes, he did." 

"Were you infatuated, or hypnotized?" 

207 



JOHN O HARA 

"Well, he seemed to think I was." 

"And that's all the answer I'm going to get?" 

"You want everything. I've already told you I love 
you. No, I wasn't hypnotized or infatuated. I have much 
too much sense for that." 

"It doesn't show much sense to love me, though." 

"Oh, yes it does. Love happens, and when it does, a 
sensible person admits it. Not to admit it would be very 
foolish indeed. That could get you into all sorts of trouble, 
deceiving yourself." 

"And you'd never deceive yourself?" 

"I hope not. I've always tried not to." 

On that basis, and almost on that basis alone, she mar- 
ried him. He was due in New York on the following Mon- 
day, but on Friday afternoon they drove to the town of 
Peru, Indiana, where her uncle had a sizable farm. "My 
father's brother Bert. He's a widower," she said. "He raises 
standard-breds and races them at all the state fairs. He 
was never very fond of Josephine, but he liked me." 

"Why are we picking him?" 

"Because he's the only member of the family living 
that would understand my doing this." 

"Why so?" 

"When you see him you'll know." 

A wooden arch painted white stood over the entrance 
to the Mississinewa Springs Farms, Bert J. Parsons, Prop. 
The driveway, lined with sycamores, was half macadam, 
on one side, half dirt road. A sign read: Autos Keep to 
Hard Surface — Drive Slow — No Horn Blowing. "Here the 
horse is king," said Nina. Some brood mares in foal 

208 



THE BIG LAUGH 

looked up as Hubert Ward drove his rented Buick coupe 
to the main house, and in another white-fenced paddock 
some aged geldings stood undisturbed. At the top of the 
steep front-porch steps a man waited to greet the new- 
comers. "Uncle Bert," said Nina. 

Bert Parsons was in his late fifties, early sixties. The 
veins in his nose and cheeks had come to the surface so that 
he seemed to be wearing a blue domino. He was wearing a 
slouch hat, an expensive suede windbreaker, whipcord 
jodhpurs and mud-caked jodhpur boots, and a pair of old- 
fashioned motoring gauntlets. From a cord around his 
neck hung a pair of goggles, and he had a half-smoked 
cigar in a corner of his mouth. As the car stopped he put 
the cigar in a concrete jardiniere and came down the steps. 

"Hello, Nina, girl," he said. His voice was surpris- 
ingly gentle, his twang Indianan. 

"Hello, Uncle Bert,* she said. She kissed him. "This is 
another Bert. Hubert Ward." 

"Well, it'd better be after what you told me over the 
phone. Howda do, Mr. Ward. You won't want your car, I 
expect. Leave it where it is and a manll take it back in 
the garage." He shook hands with Hubert Ward. "Come on 
in, will you?" 

Everywhere, in the hallway and in the rooms they 
saw, were pictures of harness horses, in and out of sulkies; 
an umbrella stand full of driving whips, and in the hall 
and the rooms glass-fronted cases of silver trophies and 
rosetted ribbons; silvered racing plates over the doorways; 
photographs of finishes in front of state-fair grandstands; 
and in the hallways and livingrooms, tall brass spittoons on 

209 



JOHN O HARA 

large circular rubber mats. It could almost have been a 
country hotel. A rubber runner, rather than a carpet or 
rug, lay in the center hall, and the rooms to right and left 
had no appearance of being lived in; but Bert Parsons 
led his guests to the rear of the house and a room that was 
smaller than the others. Here the profusion of trophies 
and racing and horse mementos left literally no empty 
space on walls or mantelpiece, and this room was carpeted, 
had a fire already burning in the fireplace, a silver-leafed 
whiskey bottle and glasses on a taboret, a blind old Aire- 
dale that did not move when the newcomers entered. The 
leather chairs were worn smooth; a double-barrel Purdey 
gun and a box of shells rested on top of the desk; the carpet 
was stained by untrained dogs, spilt whiskey, gun oil, 
tobacco juice. "Only warm room downstairs right at the 
moment," said Bert Parsons. "Rest of the housell warm 
up in about a half an hour. I don't have but very few fel- 
lows stay here overnight. If they come a distance, yes. But 
most of my visitors are from around here, and they'd just 
as soon go home nights and I'd just as soon have them, 
time they get a snootful of my liquor. Horse people are 
either teetotalers or heavy drinkers, there's no in-between. 
How about you two? This is pre-Prohibition bourbon 
whiskey, and I've got enough to last me the rest of my life, 
so don't hold back on that account." He handed Nina and 
Hubert Ward shot glasses of whiskey and poured one for 
himself. "Success to your marriage, happiness to the bride, 
congratulations to the groom. Three toasts in one, I guess 
you'd call that. Drink up . . . Nina, you know where to 
go if you feel the need." 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"I'm comfortable/' said Nina. 

"Mr. Ward?" 

"Not just now, thanks." 

"Good," said Parsons. He now took off his hat and 
windbreaker, and the others took off their coats and hats. 
"Have a seat. I made all the arrangements, Nina. I have a 
fellow coming out from Peru with the papers for you to 
sign, and don't worry. I warned him against talking to 
any newspaper people. Six o'clock Reverend Zeebach said 
he'd be here, and he's like myself, a widower, so he won't 
be liable to tell his wife and let the cat out of the 
bag. There's nothing much to it, to tell you the truth. I 
know all these people around here, and they know me. I 
don't ask many favors, so when I want something I usually 
get it. Thought you might like to have a woman stand up 
for you, Nina, so I asked Mrs. Broadbill. You remember her 
from when you used to come here summers. She does 
the cooking for the men on the place and she's absolutely 
reliable." 

"I remember her very well." 

"Well, she was only too glad when I asked her. Tell 
you the truth, she cried a little. Now as to tonight and 
while you're here, I got Mrs. Broadbill to get things ready 
in the cottage and make it livable. I have men in and out 
here all day talking business, and in the cottage you'll 
have your privacy. The cottage, Mr. Ward, is a little house 
I built when I had a superintendent here, before I took over 
myself. It's small, but I have it fixed up pretty nice. A lot 
of famous people have spent the night or longer there. Or 

211 



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JOHN O HARA 

I should say, owners of famous horses. The people aren't 
so famous." 

"It's a darling place," said Nina. 

"I always told Nina she could stay there any time she 
wanted to, but this is the first time she ever took advantage 
of the invitation." 

"But we used to stay there when I was little." 

"Yes. I didn't mean you'd never been there." 

This man, smelling of whiskey and cigars and of the 
horse barn, was behaving with a strange delicacy, and 
Hubert Ward began to see why Nina had chosen him as 
well as his place for their elopement. He could refer ex- 
plicitly to the coming night, to their desire for privacy, but 
without embarrassment to them or to himself. He was as 
impersonal as he might have been in discussing the mat- 
ing of one of his mares with one of his stud horses, but it 
was a superficial impersonality; underneath it was real af- 
fection for Nina — and distrust of Hubert Ward. Again, as 
though Nina were a favorite mare, and Hubert Ward a 
stallion from a distant farm and without papers. Hubert 
Ward knew one thing: that this was no place where Nina 
would bring him for any pre-marital experimentation. 
Bert Parsons was a strait-laced old rounder. 

"They'll be here any minute. Reverend Zeebach's driv- 
ing out with the fellow from the license bureau. Yes, and 
here's Mrs. Broadbill herself." 

Mrs. Broadbill, with a silent respectful nod to Bert 
Parsons, went directly to Nina and put her arms around 
her and kissed her. 

"Little Nina," she said. "I'm so pleased for you." 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"This is Hubert," said Nina. 

Tm pleased to meet you. You're getting a fine, fine 
girl. A fine girl. A fine woman, I should say/' 

"I know/' said Hubert Ward. 

"Well, just so you do," said Mrs. Broadbill, with an 
attempt at humor that did not come off. "The Reverend 
not here yet, Mr. Parsons?" 

"Be here any minute now. Can I offer you a drink of 
whiskey?" 

"You can offer it, knowing I won't drink it. Wine is 
what you ought to have for a wedding." 

"I made Uncle Bert promise not to do anything like 
that. No fuss and feathers. All we want is the legal cere- 
mony, don't we, Hubert?" 

"I want whatever you want," said Hubert Ward. 

"I had a big wedding, with Wayne," said Nina. "And 
I don't believe in going through all that the second time." 

"Looking at it that way, I agree with you," said Mrs. 
Broadbill. "But what about your supper? I stocked the 
kitchen in the cottage, but — " 

"I'll cook our supper. Really, we want this as simple 
as possible. And as quiet." 

"Well, your Uncle Bert can take care of that if any- 
body can. Nobody's gonna go against his wishes and your 
wishes were always his wishes." 

"Sit down, Mrs. Broadbill. You're getting all excited," 
said Bert Parsons. "This is just two people complying with 
the law, that's the way to look at it." 

Mrs. Broadbill sat down. "It's no such thing, but if 
that's the way you want to look at it. It's our Nina getting 

213 



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JOHN O HARA 

married, whether it's in some big church in Chicago or 
your back office. But if that's the way you want to look at 
it." 

There was silence lasting seconds that threatened to 
become oppressive, but the doorbell rang and Bert Parsons 
went to answer it, returning with two men and wearing a 
coat. Either of them could have been the clergyman; it 
turned out the young one was. The court clerk, one Seaver, 
was the most nervous person in the room, overawed by 
Bert Parsons and by the movie star bridegroom. "I made 
this out in the name of Richard H. Ward," he said. "What 
Mr. Parsons told me to do." 

"That's my real name." 

"Well, I guess that'll disguise it. You both sign here, 
and here, and here. Ma'am, you keep this, Reverend, this 
is for you. That's about it, I guess. You want me to wait out- 
side, Mr. Parsons?" 

"Wait out in the hall." 

"Oh, he can stay," said Nina. "That is, if he'd like to." 

"Like very much to," said Seaver. 

The Reverend Mr. Zeebach then conducted the cere- 
mony, hardly more than five minutes of liturgical language 
at the speed he read it by prearrangement with Bert Par- 
sons. "You may kiss the bride," he said, and smiled, shook 
hands with Hubert Ward and stuffed in his pocket the 
envelope the groom passed to him. The bride was kissed 
by her new husband, by her uncle, and by Mrs. Broadbill. 
She shook hands with Zeebach and Seaver. 

"Thank you, gentlemen," said Bert Parsons, to dismiss 
the cleric and the clerk, and they left. 

214 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Well," said Mrs, Broadbill. "All over so quick, you 
hardly realized. Do you feel all right about it being so 
quick, Nina?" 

"Of course I do." 

"A president of the United States was sworn in with 
no more fuss than that. Calvin Coolidge," said Bert Parsons. 

"Well, he made a good president," said Mrs. Broad- 
bill. "And you can take that for a good sign, Nina. And 
Mr. Ward. I guess I won't be needed any more, either." 

"Nope," said Bert Parsons. "Lights on down in the cot- 
tage and all that?" 

"Ready for occupancy." 

"All right, then you can go," said Parsons. 

"If you need me while you're here, I'm easy to find, 
Nina. I hope 111 see you before you go." 

"Oh, you will, Mrs. Broadbill. Drop in tomorrow after- 
noon, maybe." 

"No, I won't drop in, but if you phone me." 

Parsons addressed the married couple. "Your baggage 
is all in the cottage, but it won't be unpacked. I guess you'll 
just want to walk down there by yourselves." 

"Yes. And thank you for everything, Uncle Bert." 

"I'd have done more, but this is all you wanted. This 
is a fine girl, Mr. Ward. They don't come any better than 
her." 

"I haven't seen any better." 

"I'm sure of that, all right. Well, bundle up, there's 
snow in the air. See you tomorrow, I guess." Parsons kissed 
his niece at the front door, and closed it when once she 
and Ward were together on the path to the cottage. 

215 



JOHN O HARA 

In the cottage kitchen they opened the door of the 
Frigidaire. "We have quite a choice. Mrs. Broadbill must 
be expecting us to stay at least a week. Well, my husband, 
would you like a steak? Chops? Chicken? Just say what 
you want." 

"Whatever is easiest and takes the least time/' 

"Steak. How soon do you want it?" 

"Well, I'd like to unpack and take a bath, wouldn't 
you?" 

"While you're doing that 111 get supper ready, and 111 
unpack and have my bath after supper." 

He put his arms around her waist and she looked up at 
him and smiled. "Let's wait," she said. 

"You're not nervous?" 

"I don't think I'm as nervous as you are." 

"You're absolutely right." 

"You heard what Mrs. Broadbill said. You've got a 
fine woman. Did you notice she corrected herself, from girl 
to woman?" 

"I did notice. But I've never been married before." 

"Still, I don't think either one of us is a virgin," said 
Nina. "Let's have our baths and our supper, and then let 
nature take its course." 

"All right." 

"I'm not teasing you. You'll see." 

"That's a very teasing remark." 

"Yes, I guess it is. I didn't mean it to be. Go take your 
bath, get into your pajamas and dressing gown, and I 
promise you I won't put it off after supper. I confess, I am a 

216 



THE BIG LAUGH 

little nervous. I want to get used to the idea of being with 
you. We've had very little time alone together." 

"Okay." 

"I love my ring. How were you able to get a wedding 
ring without causing comment?" 

"Because I'm a great natural liar. I told Frank 
Terry—" 

"Your "publicity man?" 

"Wait till you hear this. I told Terry that my mother 
had never had a really nice wedding ring, and I wanted 
to surprise her with one when I got to New York. 'And you 
know how it is, Frank,' I said. If I go to one of those New 
York stores and buy a wedding ring, everybody will jump 
to conclusions.' He bit. He swallowed it. I told him the 
kind of ring I wanted, gave him the cash, and there it is." 

"I wonder about your mother. Shouldn't we call 
her?" 

"We talked about that driving down from Chicago." 

"I know, but don't you feel differently now? I do. 
Your getting the ring that way, Hubert — you could be so 
thoughtful. That would have been a very thoughtful thing 
to do for your mother. It shows that you are naturally a 
thoughtful person. And kind. You are." 

"Well, I hope you say that ten years from now." 

"It will be just as true then as it is now. They never 
had the chance to see that side of you. All they saw was a 
wild kid that was making trouble for them. And for him- 
self." 

"Don't expect things that aren't there, Nina." 

217 



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JOHN O HARA 

"I don't. But don't you, either. We love each other 
with all the bad things showing, your naughtiness, and 
my puritanism. I'm not as good as I'm supposed to be, and 
you're not as wicked as you've told me you are. But 
wicked you fell in love with good me, and good me fell in 
love with wicked you. We mustn't try to change that — 
at least not too soon. After we've been married a while the 
too-good and the too-bad will mix . . ." 

"What? What are you thinking?" 

"They will mix. They'll mix to form our children. Go 
take your bath. You can see what's on my mind." 

They had their supper in the kitchen, a cheerful room. 
"I have no dessert for you, so you have your cigarette and 
coffee and I'll do the dishes." 

"I'll help you with the dishes." 

"No, you'll only be in the way. You wont be in the 
way, but you'd hate it and I'm very quick at it. Talk to me 
while I'm doing them. Tell me more about Ken Downey, 
your director. Whenever you talk about him there's some- 
thing in your voice that's never there any other time." 

Hubert Ward talked about Ken Downey and she fin- 
ished the dishes before he had completed an anecdote 
about the director. She sat with him until the end of the 
anecdote. "You see," she said, "when you talk about 
Downey you have to tell me much worse things than you 
ever told me about yourself. Have you ever thought of 
that?" 

"Well, no, but nobody ever said Ken was Little Lord 
Fauntleroy. Several people have threatened to kill him. I 
mean kill. One man was crippled for life in one of his pic- 

218 



THE BIG LAUGH 

tures, and he's had I don't know how many lawsuits. But 
he's a genius." 

"A motion picture genius. You bandy that word about 
too freely. When I think of genius, I think of Leonardo da 
Vinci or Shakespeare. Beethoven. Brahms. They've stood 
the test of time. No movie has." 

"I can't argue with you on that." 

"I know," she said. She put her hand on his. "And you 
don't want to argue and neither do I. I'm going to take my 
bath now. I won't be very long. Sit in the livingroom and 
read the latest Standard Bred Journal, or whatever you 
can find. Or maybe something on the radio." 

He waited in the livingroom, listening to the tub fill- 
ing, then to the gurgling pipe sucking the water down 
when she finished her bath; but he did not hear her come 
in the room. She was in her bare feet and a nightgown and 
she was standing in front of him before he knew she was 
in the room. The nightgown was shaded dark at the 
points of her breasts and between her legs, and when he 
held out his hands to her she knelt in front of him, waiting 
for his first words, but he did not speak. 

"Aren't you going to say anything?" she said. 

"I wish I could," he said. 

She slipped the top of the nightgown off her shoulders. 
"Still nothing?" she said. 

He shook his head. 

Now she stood up and stepped out of the nightgown 
and held her arms to her sides. 

"No words," he said. "No words good enough." 

219 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

She half smiled, contentedly. "No words are better 
than the things you said to other girls," she said. 

"By saying nothing I said the right thing?" 

"Not quite, but all right." She put out a hand to him. 
"Now you." 

"Now me what?" 

"Get rid of those things that are in the way. Called 
pajamas. Here, let me." She unbuttoned the coat, then 
pulled the drawstring. "And please take off those socks and 
those slippers. Don't hold out on me." They stood apart for 
a moment, but then they touched each other. "Oh, yes," 
she said. "So nice, and I want you so, and you want me, 
too. I wonder how I can tell that. I wonder how I can tell. 
You haven't said anything." 

"But you can tell, can't you?" 

"Yes. How can you tell?" 

"I have ways," he said. 

"Tell me about your ways, but not in here." She 
grasped his hand and they went back to the bedroom and 
she lay down. The playful mood covering her fear of awk- 
wardness was now gone. "Now," she said. 

"Right away?" 

"Yes, inside me." She lay still and helped him with 
her hand and then, watching his face she waited, and 
feeling him she commenced to smile but almost im- 
mediately she wanted him more than she wanted to pro- 
long pleasure and their minds lost control of their actions. 
"Darling, darling," she said. 

"Yes. Lovely," he said. 

She brushed her hair back off her forehead and her 

220 



THE BIG LAUGH 

head lay with one cheek on the pillow. Her eyes were 
nearly closed. "Was it lovely for you, darling?" she said. 

"Oh, yes. Was it for you?" 

"Oh, if you only knew." 

"I do." 

"Do you? Can it be as lovely for a man? I hope so. 
Oh, I do hope so. Men are so nice, to do this for women." 

"It works both ways — when it works." 

"Yes. Did I surprise you?" 

"Yes." 

"I did? How?" 

"Everything you did surprised me." 

"Do you know why I was so bold?" 

"You mean coming into the livingroom? Yes, I think 
I know. You were timid." 

"That's not all, though. I wanted to see you, so I 
thought if I let you see me first. Oh, I don't know. Maybe 
that's not true. Maybe I just wanted you to see me. You've 
looked at me a lot, but I've always been dressed before. 
Yes, I've always known when you were looking at me that 
way. You know, you can look me straight in the eye and 
still be staring at my bosom. Do you know that?" 

"I guess that's true." 

"But you've never even seen half of my bosom till to- 
night. Will you always stare at my bosom, Hubert? Please?" 

"Your bosom, and elsewhere." 

"My elsewhere requires your imagination." 

"Not any more. My memory. My imagination before, 
but not any more. Just my memory." 

"Or, you can always ask to see it and I'll let you." 

221 



JO HN O H AR A 

"You will?" 

"Sure." 

"At a diplomatic reception in the White House?" 

"Absolutely. We can always go behind a potted palm 
and 111 let you see it. Just for a second, of course. And if 
it's too dark, well, you can feel it." 

"Just for a second, of course." 

"Two or three seconds. Not any longer, though, I 
guess. Not at a diplomatic reception." 

"You don't think that would be very diplomatic?" 

"No. And I'm so receptive I might overdo it. With you. 
Not with anybody but you." 

"You re damn right you won't." 

"Are you going to be jealous?" 

"Yes." 

"I've always prided myself on not being jealous. But 
I was so jealous of that Simmons woman, and I'd only just 
met you. As a matter of honest fact, if I'd been completely 
truthful with myself that day, I watched you on that div- 
ing-board and the things I thought I won't even tell you 
now." 

"Why? Why not?" 

"I will, when they happen. Do you feel married?" 

"No." 

"Neither do I. Let's pretend we're not." 

"All right." 

"It's so ridiculous that I wouldn't do this last night, 
and yet I wouldn't have. I never would have, I don't think. 
But now that we are legally man and wife, I feel quite im- 
moral. I suppose what I mean is that I feel very sexy, and 

222 



THE BIG LAUGH 

I've always been brought up to believe that being sexy was 
immoral. No Reverend Zwieback can change that so 
quickly." 

"What about the lawyer you were going away with?" 

"Do you know something awful? Suddenly he's be- 
come like a picture in a magazine. Not even an under- 
wear ad. Mr. Good Citizen, never seen without his clothes 
on. Wears a suit to bed. To think I almost went away with 
him. And now I realize that if I had, I couldn't have mar- 
ried him, and all my moral principles would have been 
shattered. I'd have slept with him, then not married him, 
and maybe that would have happened quite a few times. 
You saved me from that, darling." 

"Oh, I always knew I'd be a good influence some- 
how." 

"Joke about it, but it's true." 

"What about your husband — Wayne?" 

She was silent. 

"I withdraw the question," he said. 

"It had to be asked in a conversation like this, some- 
time if not now. I'll answer the question. I loved him, loved 
and adored him. But in seven years with him I was never 
the way I've been with you tonight. I never looked at 
him on a diving-board and thought the things I thought 
about you. And incidentally, he was a much better diver 
than you. But if he'd stayed alive and you came along — I 
don't know. Maybe you would have wrecked that mar- 
riage. But you don't want to wreck it now, do you? It was 
good, and it never hurt you. It would have stayed good 

223 



JOHN O HARA 

if you hadn't come along. And I need that marriage in 
bringing up my daughter." 

"I want to ask you one more question, if I may." 

"All right." 

"Why did you only have one child?" 

"The wedding night, when questions get asked," she 
said. 

"They don't have to be answered now." 

"I was prepared to answer the question, but not to- 
night. I thought you'd ask other kinds. How far did I let 
boys go." 

"You're thinking back to your other wedding night," 
he said. 

"Yes. He asked a lot more questions than you have. 
Every boy I ever kissed — there weren't many. Had any of 
them put his hand on me. Had I put my hand on any of 
them. Did I ever make a boy come. Did boys ever make 
me come. He wanted to know everything, and I told him." 

"Did you resent his questions? It sounds that way." 

"I guess I must have, but not very much. I was think- 
ing so much about going the limit for the first time. I didn't 
know how it was going to be, and I told him everything 
because I wanted to get on with it. It was odd, his asking 
all those questions. He was so inexperienced himself. We 
really had to learn everything together." 

"And you finally did learn everything?" 

"No. Far from everything, from him. The night before 
he left for Detroit it was practically the same as the first 
week we were married. But I adored him. Everybody did, 
but he was mine." 

224 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"How do you know there's more than what he showed 
your 

"Young wives talk among themselves. Girls at school 
talked among themselves. And my own instincts to do 
other things, but he'd always stop me. You don't know 
much about him. He was very religious. He taught a class 
in Sunday School long after we were married. He was the 
kind that you would have called a Christer, but you never 
would have dared say it to his face." 

"I'm not going to say anything against him, but I'm 
sure I wouldn't have liked him and he wouldn't have liked 
me. 

"You'd have liked him if there were no girls around. 
Men gravitated toward him. He was a marvelous ath- 
lete." 

"A man's man — only in Hollywood that means a 
fairy." 

"He wasn't that." 

"But I asked you before, why did you only have one 
child?" 

"We didn't. We had two. We had a little boy, our 
second child. People outside the family think he was born 
dead, but he wasn't. He lived nearly a year. He was abnor- 
mal. He could never be anything else. There was no hope 
for him." 

"I'm sorry." 

"They even let me think he was born dead and they 
took him away, but then Wayne told me — oh, weeks later. 
And he didn't want me to have any more children." 

"But your daughter is perfect." 

225 



-^\ 



JOHN O H AR A 

"Yes. That was luck. And the little boy was bad luck. 
The doctors said we could produce normal children, but 
Wayne was afraid of what would happen to me if we 
didn't. His mother had an uncle that wasn't quite right, 
physically and I guess mentally. He had no testicles, and 
he was shaped like a woman. I never saw him, and nei- 
ther did Wayne, but apparently this man, or half-man, 
lived in a little town in England, ran the town bakery. Led 
a normal life till he was pretty well along, and then he 
committed suicide." 

"My father committed suicide." 

"I know. But that was money." 

"Yes, but sometimes I've wondered whether there 
wasn't something else in addition. I don't really know 
much about my father, and I wonder how well my mother 
really knew him." 

"Does it disturb you?" 

"Not very much. I don't let it." 

"That's good. Don't let it. We all have somebody, 
every family. Uncle Bert, for instance. When we used to 
come here as children, we were always told not to kiss 
Uncle Bert. Then when I was ten or twelve we were told 
it was all right to kiss him. It doesn't take much guessing 
to figure out Uncle Bert's trouble." 

"You mean syphilis?" 

"Well, something like that. We were never told what 
it was. We were just told to shake hands with him, and 
we always stayed here in the cottage. He wasn't here all 
the time in those days. He was away a lot, racing at the 
fairs, and he had a house in Indianapolis where he lived 

226 



THE BIG LAUGH 

most of the time till his wife died. Aunt Ella. We never 
saw much of her. She very seldom came to the farm, and 
she wasn't very nice. She had no family, and I got the dis- 
tinct impression that Uncle Bert had married beneath him. 
Children know those things." 

"So do adults. I got the distinct impression that your 
uncle thinks you've married beneath you." 

"Well, that's because he always liked Wayne. Wayne 
drove some of his horses and took an interest. If Wayne had 
lived this place probably would have been left to me. But 
I don't want it. I love to come here to visit, but it's terribly 
hot in summer and mean cold in winter, and much too out 
of the way. And my daughter wouldn't have any friends 
here." 

"I just thought of something. You ought to phone 
your sister, in Los Angeles. Tell her to start work on getting 
your daughter in some school out there." 

"You are thoughtful. Thank you. What I'm going to 
do is write to her tomorrow, a long letter. I don't want to 
talk to her over the phone. She'd interrupt me with advice 
and so forth, and I don't want to be interrupted. I'm sure 
we can get the child in some good school. Dwight is pretty 
influential." 

"Member of the California Club." 

"You remember that. Yes. And all those things. He 
can probably do as much as Josephine." 

"And I have to get a house." 

"Can't we live in your apartment? 

He laughed. "I don't mind playing a game that we're 

227 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

not married, but God only knows what you'd find in some 
of my bureau drawers." 

"Just as long as it isn't Mrs. Simmons. She has quite a 
figure, that woman, but you never thought she was 
pretty, Hubert." 

"I only saw the figure once. It's quite a figure." 

"I'm not afraid of her, really I'm not. If you ever get 
tired of me, I don't think you'll go rushing back to her." 

"No." 

"You're supposed to say you'll never get tired of me. 
This is our wedding night. Shall I stop talking?" 

"All right." 

"And you just put your arms around me and we'll go 
to sleep for a few minutes?" 

"Do you think we'll sleep?" 

"No. But we might. And if we don't? Are you tired?" 

"Pleasantly." 

She lay with her head on his shoulder and her hand 
on his chest, then slowly she began to make circles on his 
chest and downward to his belly. "Do you mind if we put 
out the light?" she said. 

"Ill do it," he said. 

In the darkness he lost her for a moment, then found 
her, and she was where she wanted to be, where he hoped 
she would be. 

Edmund Greenhill was standing to one side of his 
desk, a concession. He was not standing behind his desk, 
he did not sit at his desk and then rise as Hubert Ward 
entered the office. He did not come forth and greet Hu- 

228 



THE BIG LAUGH 

bert Ward. But he was standing to one side of his desk. 
That far he would go. He put out his hand, and cocked 
his head to one side in a chiding attitude. 

"Officially I'm sore as hell at you, Hubie. Sore as 
hell. But speaking personally I'm very happy for you. I 
hear you got a real lovely person. How you ever did it I 
don't know, you reprobate. Take a seat." 

"Thanks." 

Edmund Greenhill decided to sit on the davenport. "I 
understand you found a place to live and all?" 

"Yes, way the hell out in the Brentwood section." 

"Well, we're thinking of moving out that way. Maybe 
building. It's the coming section. I don't have anything 
against Beverly, but we got industry people on both sides 
of us. Laverne Rodney and her husband on the one side 
and some writer renting on the other side. If we got our 
price we'd like to build on Bristol. You anywhere near Bris- 
tol?" 

"Quite near." 

"You don't care for a cigar, as I recall." 

"No thanks." 

"You're sort of subdued, Hubie. Is that what married 
life did to you?" 

"No, I'm just waiting for you to begin." 

"Well, all right. We'll lay both our cards on the table. 
I have the right picture for you to follow Destroyers with, 
Hubie, but not what you're asking in the way of money. 
I give you my word, the studio won't pay it. I know you 
don't want to talk money with me, but I have to talk it 
with you. You have an agent that lost all sense of propor- 

229 



—\ 



JOHN O HARA 

tion, a Mr. Jack Golsen I believe he calls himself, although 
that isn't the name I knew him under when he was a 
lowly costume checker in Wardrobe on this very lot. Yes, 
that's what he started out as. From there to mimeograph- 
ing scripts in the script department and then all of a sud- 
den he blossomed forth as an agent. I give you the back- 
ground of Mr. Jack Golsen to show you how much he don't 
know about pictures. This gentleman now presumes to 
know all about production figures, but if he ever saw a pro- 
duction chart I doubt it very much. He bases all his infor- 
mation on what he can read in Harrisons Reports and Va- 
riety. Maybe you don't know what he's asking for you, 
Hubie." 

"Yes I do. Straight five thousand a week for three 
years." 

"Did you ever hear of such a thing?" 

"Why, sure I did. Do you want me to name some peo- 
ple that are getting more?" 

"You don't have to. I know their names. I have some 
of them working for me. I know the salary of every son of 
a bitch acting in pictures today, or I can find it out by 
simply picking up that phone on my desk. You want me to 
prove it to you?" 

"Yes. How much is Doris Arlington getting?" 

"Doris? Doris isn't under contract to a studio. She'll 
work for twelve thousand dollars a week with a minimum 
four weeks' guarantee. Am I correct?" 

"I don't know. I was just curious." 

"Oh, I thought maybe you were testing me. Well, you 
could verify that." 

230 






THE BIG LAUGH 

"I don't want to verify it, Eddie, or talk any more 
about money. And I don't care whether Jack Golsen's real 
name was Hymie Fink or if he was a waiter in the com- 
missary. I'm pretty sure that he'll get the most money any 
studio will pay, and I can't expect more than that." 

"Oh. Then you lay your cards on the table, Hubie." 

"What's the picture you have for me?" 

"I have actually two pictures to follow Destroyers 
with." 

"Is one of them an aviation picture? If so, nuts." 

"One of them was an aviation picture, I'll grant you 
that, but if you don't want to follow one aviation picture 
with another aviation picture we can forget it. I'd rather 
see you in the other one anyway." 

"And what is it?" 

"It's a picture that we can book it into say the Rivoli 
and run it for a year on a reserved-seat policy, with a two- 
dollar top. We won't show it any place else in the world 
till we get at least a year's run out of it in New York and 
maybe London, and then we'll road-show it in the key 
cities for another six months minimum before it goes into 
the grind houses." 

"But you didn't say what it is." 

"No, and I won't say till you convince your Mr. Jack 
Golsen that he's pricing you right out of pictures." 

"Come now, Eddie. That sounds like a threat." 

"It isn't intended as such but maybe you ought to 
think about it from that angle. Even if I was given to un- 
derstand your wife has independent means." 

Hubert Ward rose. "So long, Eddie." 

231 



^~\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"Now wait a second, Hubie. Don't take it that — " 

Hubert Ward closed the door behind him, and in the 
following weeks the industry buzzed with versions of how 
Eddie Greenhill had managed to lose the most valuable 
young male star in the business. It was especially humiliat- 
ing because the industry was so sure that Eddie Greenhill 
had the inside track that no other studio had made serious 
efforts to talk business with Hubert Ward. Then when it 
was announced that Ward had signed with U. S. Films for 
three years at an undisclosed salary, New York told Eddie 
he might as well start looking for another job. He could 
settle his contract immediately for $100,000, or he could 
expect to be assigned to the company's financially success- 
ful but low-budget, unprestigious horse operas for the two 
years that remained of his contract. He settled. It is 
enough to say that Eddie Greenhill never bought or built 
in the Brentwood section and that from time to time in the 
late Thirties his name would appear in screen credits as 
author of original stories. 

The first meeting of Nina Ward and Jack Golsen es- 
tablished the terms of the relationship that were to be- 
come permanent. It took place during the period of the 
negotiations between Golsen and U. S. Films. The time 
of day late on a Sunday morning. "I promise you I won't 
make it a habit," said Hubert Ward. "I'm all for keeping 
them away from here. But Golsen thinks Ziffrin is ready 
to sign. Monday, probably. And we want to get our stories 
straight." 

"Why do you have to get your stories straight?" 

232 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Because I could accidentally say something that Gol- 
sen wasn't ready to have me say. He'll be here tomorrow 
morning, eleven-thirty." 

"What sort of creature is he? He sounds awful on the 
phone." 

"He's pretty awful, but you won't have to more than 
say hello to him." 

"Shall I offer him breakfast?" 

"No, but he may need a cup of coffee. Saturday night 
he always goes on the town." 

"He's not married?" 

"No." 

Hubert and Nina Ward entered the library together, 
and Jack Golsen turned to face them. With both hands he 
held out a long box from a florist. "To Mrs. Ward for dis- 
turbing your Sunday morning," he said. 

"This is Jack Golsen," said Hubert Ward. 

"I apologize for this intrusion," said Golsen. "But it 
honestly couldn't be helped, Mrs. Ward. Hello, Hubie. You 
I didn't bring anything except maybe some good news. 
Later." 

"Shall I open it here? Now?" said Nina Ward. 

"If that's your pleasure," said Golsen. 

"Yellow roses. My favorites! Did Hubert tell you? He 
couldn't have, because he didn't know." 

"No, I was only going by a description of you and a 
couple photographs that didn't do you justice." 

"They're perfectly lovely. Thank you so much. I'll get 
something to put them in. Oh — would you like a cup of 
coffee?" 

*33 



JOHN O HARA 

"If it's no trouble, I could sure use a strong cup of 
black coffee with one lump of sugar in it." 

"Some scrambled eggs? Or fried? It wont take a 
minute." 

"Please, Mrs. Ward. The very thought of food — in 
other words, no thanks. Just the coffee, please." 

"It's strong and it's hot," said Nina Ward, and went 
to get it. 

"I would say you're a very fortunate man, Hubie. She 
didn't have to open her mouth and I knew she was a class 
dame. And don't object to dame. In England they use 
dame as a title, the same as sir. Jesus Christ, I feel awful. 
I took this broad home to the apartment with me and she's 
still there. Some broad I seen her sitting on a bench wait- 
ing for a bus down on Wilshire. I was on my way to a party 
at some friends of mine on the other side of Wilshire, down 
past Western. Just some friends of mine. But I got stopped 
by a light and I had a quick gander at her and just for the 
hell of it I opened the door of the car and I said to her, 
'Here I am,' and like she was expecting me she got in. She 
asked me where I was going and I said I was on my way 
to a party. About twenty-seven, twenty-eight years of age. 
Red hair, and thrown together like a brick shithouse I 
could see that. And she said, well would there be plenty 
of girls at the party because if not she didn't have any- 
thing better to do. 'What's your name?' I said. 'Mary Pick- 
ford,' she said, 'what the hell difference does it make?' So 
I knew right away this was my broad for the night. She 
said, 'You're a Jew, aren't you?' and I said, 'Yeah, and you 
get the hell outa the car,' and she said, 'Wait a minute. I 

234 



THE BIG LAUGH 

like Jews,' and I said how many did she like, and she said 
well only one at a time. So that kind of made me laugh 
and I said why didn't we blow the party and spend a little 
money, Saturday night, everybody was spending money 
that had any. She's still there at the apartment. Or I guess 
she is. I don't know her name or where she lives or any- 
thing. But I'll tell you this much, I need that coffee." On 
seeing Nina with the tray he brought his story to a quick 
conclusion. "Ah, the mocha-java," he said. "Let me get 
some of this down and bring back my confidence." 

"Take your time, it's good and hot," said Nina Ward. 

"Yes, don't burn your tongue," said Hubert Ward. 

"Looking around, I think this house used to belong 
to Jasper W. Tuttle, one actor that saved his money and 
invested it right. Actors will save their money, but invest- 
ing it is another matter entirely. Your husband, he don't 
have anything but cash, regardless of what I tell him." 

"I can understand cash, I can't understand the things 
you want me to invest in." 

"Real estate you ought to be able to understand. You 
pay big rent for this house. That's real estate. Tuttle didn't 
build this house, you know. Who built it was old Geoffrey 
Masters. Sir Geoffrey we used to call him, long before the 
King gave him the right to be called Sir. He used to tell 
people it was a copy of his old home in Cornwall or some 
place, but I got him to level with me one time and the old 
phony admitted he never had any house in Cornwall. 
Then, But he sold the place to Jasper W. Tuttle and then 
he bought a house in England. I don't know if it was Corn- 

235 



^ 



JOHN O HARA 

wall. Tuttle sold it to the present owner. You know who 
the present owner is, don't you?" 

"A lawyer named Fabrikant." 

"Nah. Fabrikant's only a front. This house and the 
two houses on that side of you and from here to the corner 
on the other side, all owned by Doris Arlington." 

'Til be a son of a bitch." 

"You let him talk like that in front of you, Mrs. 
Ward?" 

"Oh, sure." 

Golsen lit a cigarette. He kept waving the match 
long after it was out. "You mind if I tell you something, 
Mrs. Ward?" 

"Please do." 

"Don't you do the changing. Let him. This man is on 
the eve of a big career after futzing around for four years. 
Looking at it from strictly the agent's point of view, 
strictly mercenary, you're as good a thing as could have 
happened to him at exactly this time. Single, he could have 
gone haywire. Married to some broad, he could have gone 
haywire. But married to you, just from what little I know 
about you — but I know people — Hubert Ward is really go- 
ing places. Provided. Provided he plays it right. Who he 
ought to pattern himself after is Ronnie Colman, for in- 
stance. Hubie is twenty-five years of age, four years in pic- 
tures, not an unknown, but from now on he's going to get 
big parts, big billing, big money. In other words he just 
graduated from high school, as far as pictures goes. We 
made nice money, but from here in — wow! And marrying 
you is the smartest thing he ever did — " 

236 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"I'll take a little credit for that," said Hubert Ward. 

"Quiet, Hubie. Today using the brain is tough 
enough. To continue, Mrs. Ward. Were gonna surround 
this fellow with the aura of respectability. Why? Because 
in the long run it pays off. It's paying off for Ronnie, and I 
don't have to tell you about Garbo. We can't make this fel- 
low into a man of mystery. It's too late for that, even at 
twenty-five. But the way I look at it, the country's ready 
for a leading man that's happily married, that don't chase 
around, that goes home from the studio and his wife is a 
non-pro. It's not only the country's ready. The industry's 
ready. I want this fellow to have it in his contract that he 
has to approve of publicity stills, and who he'll see for in- 
terviews and all that. Maybe we couldn't get that just now 
with one of the majors, but we can get it with U. S. Films 
and Ziffrin. You don't have any objection if we make him 
the symbol of respectability, your husband?" 

Nina Ward looked at her husband and then at Gol- 
sen. "Do you always talk this way, Mr. Golsen?" 

"Mrs. Ward, that don't offend me. That's the way I 
want you to be. I just as soon if you're a total ignoramus 
about people like me, and picture business. Tomorrow I 
have the crucial meeting with Ziffrin and them. On money 
we're not very far apart. On billing. Such details as those 
there. What I plan to do, I make a loud noise fighting about 
the money, and I wear them down and they wear me 
down till I give a little, and then I sneak in these other 
things about publicity stills and interviews. They won't 
fight me. No studio breaks their necks to get publicity for 
a star. Contrary to the general opinion, they hate to spend 

237 



-^ 



JO HN O H AR A 

money on a star, and especially an independent like U. S. 
Films. They'll loosen up for a picture, because they have 
to, but it goes against the grain to spend good money on 
an actor or actress. So I look like I'm doing them a favor 
without knowing it, and that way I get it down in black 
and white that our boy here don't have to do stunts, have 
your house overrun with these photographers and inter- 
viewers. We practically dictate who he sees and who he 
don't see. And that means you're spared the ballyhoo 
stuff. So is your little daughter, and maybe you and Hubie 
will start increasing the population, who knows?" 

Thus, on a Sunday morning, in a Tudor house in the 
Brentwood Heights section of Los Angeles, a star was fabri- 
cated by a man who at the moment was suffering from his 
excesses of the night before. The factors were neatly con- 
tradictory: the Lord's Day; the synthetic surroundings 
that had been originally placed there by a Cheapside boy 
who had once longed for the English countryside; the girl 
from the prairies who was about to be made famous by 
keeping her in obscurity; the subject himself, who had 
lived a quarter of a century without a thought of princi- 
ple, and who was about to be converted by the movies into 
something his remote ancestors had been through convic- 
tion. Hubert Ward accompanied Jack Golsen to the door 
and came back to the livingroom, where Nina was looking 
at the Sunday paper. He slowly paced up and down in 
front of her. 

"What is it?" she said. 

"I was just thinking," he said. "Maybe I ought to write 
to my mother." 

238 



THE BIG LAUGH 

The photographs of Hubert Ward, in opera hat and 
tails, and Nina, in her mink, at the movie premieres always 
had them together; walking, standing, sitting in the Pack- 
ard town car that Ziffrin-U. S. Films gave Hubert Ward 
as a Christmas bonus. The captions always referred to 
Nina as the lovely socialite wife of the popular star. Hu- 
bert Ward had no contractual control over the newspaper 
photographers, but he needed none, since they rarely had 
a chance to take his picture where he did not want it taken. 
Nearly all his pictures in the files were Mr. and Mrs. Hu- 
bert Ward, chatting between chukkers at Midwick Coun- 
try Club (Eric Pedley, Mr. Ward, Mrs. Ward, Elmer 
Boeseke); Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Ward sharing a box with 
Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Barley at the Pacific South West 
tennis tournament (front row, Mrs. Ward and her sister, 
Mrs. Barley; seated behind them, Dwight Barley and Mr. 
Ward); a gay group enjoying the Santa Barbara Fiesta 
( Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Joyce, Movie Star Hubert Ward and 
his socialite wife; Billy Fiske, noted bobsledder; Hugh 
Blue, noted yachtsman; Louis Rowan, young Pasadena 
polo star; Wright Ludington, noted art collector; Mrs. 
Louise Macy, of New York, former Pasadenan; Icky Outh- 
waite, popular society entertainer; Mr. and Mrs. Alfred 
Wright, of Pasadena ) ; and Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Ward at- 
tending the Philharmonic concert at the Shrine Auditorium 
(the movie idol and his socialite wife discussing the pro- 
gram with Mrs. Dwight Barley, Mrs. Ward's sister). 

There were photographic files devoted to Ward, Mrs. 
Hubert (Nina). The pictures were few in number and 
nearly all showed her with other women at tennis, at pool- 

239 



~^ 



JOHN O HARA 

side, leaving the fashion shows at Bullock's-Wilshire and 
I. Magnin's, and at society weddings (Mr. Ward was on 
location in the High Sierras). There was one batch of 
glossy prints that showed her leaving the Vendome restau- 
rant and seated in the garden at her Brentwood Heights 
residence with Mrs. Sanford Ward, New Jersey socialite 
mother of the noted movie star . . . 

She did not answer Hubert Ward's first letter. "But 
don't give up," said Nina. "I'll write to her, or maybe it'd 
be a good idea if I wrote to your sister first." 

"I don't know where she lives, but I suppose I could 
find out easily enough." 

"Your uncle?" 

"God no. There I draw the line, at that son of a bitch. 
If he'd had his way I'd be at the bottom of the Amazon." 

"The Amazons had big bottoms," said Nina. 

"You know, Nina, I'm going to have to report you to 
Jack Golsen." 

"No, he wouldn't object to my risque jokes. We're mar- 
ried, that's what he cares about." 

"He didn't want you to change." 

"Maybe I didn't change, very much. Maybe I didn't 
change at all. I just never knew any boy that I could say 
naughty things to, and they're not so naughty, really. 
Amazons' bottoms. They had big bottoms and big thick 
thighs. Crush a man to death, I should think. Maybe that's 
what they did." 

"As you were saying, speaking of my mother, who's 
not an Amazon but maybe does want to crush me to 
death." 

240 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"As I was saying, 111 write to her," said Nina. 

Nina's letter got a response. Kitty Ward had been will- 
ing enough to accept her share of her son's fame, but be- 
fore doing so she had to be able to show her brother that 
Richard had come to her, so to speak. Or so she believed. 
Franklin Hubert was bored with Kitty and her Sunday 
dinners and pride in her grandchildren and financial 
problems and lonely drinking and self-imposed exclusion 
from participation in the life of her son. New acquaint- 
ances would say to her, "I hadn't realized you were the 
mother of Hubert Ward," and as Richard became better 
known it became more difficult to refrain from accepting 
the homage due the mother of a film star. It became so dif- 
ficult, in fact, that she did not take the trouble to maintain 
her early aloofness toward Richard the Broadway actor. 
"Oh, yes, he's my son," she would say, and her newest 
acquaintance would marvel at the quiet modesty of the 
proud mother. 

"I can't say no to this letter," she said to her brother. 
"She sounds like a really nice girl." 

"Then dont say no," said Franklin Hubert. "Blood is 
thicker than water. And it's time he did something about 
supporting you." 

"You've been so wonderful, Frank." 

"I haven't been wonderful. You're my sister." 

"Yes, but not every brother would do as much as 
you've done." She refused to let him alter the self-portrait 
of a woman with a devoted brother and a penitent, fa- 
mous son. "They want me to stay a month." 

241 



^\ 



JOHN O H AR A 

"Well, there's nothing keeping you here. Stay a 
month. Maybe you could even rent this house, if you like 
it out there." 

"Oh, I could never leave all my friends now. But a few 
weeks in California. I've never been to California. I wonder 
if Nina's having a baby." 

"I haven't the faintest idea. You'll be able to find that 
out when you get there." 

"It might be just what he needs." 

In her letter Nina had enclosed a cheque for two 
thousand dollars, "to cover traveling expenses and other 
tilings that might come up." Hubert Ward in his letter had 
only offered to send money. The clerk at the bank was 
very polite when Kitty Ward deposited the cheque; he 
could not completely hide his surprise at seeing the noted 
signature, but he made no special comment, and Kitty did 
not remember until later that the bank clerk might have 
some reason to show surprise. But by that time she had 
spent some of the money on a new outfit and the rail tick- 
ets. 

Her son and his wife met her at the Pasadena station, 
Kitty's second experience of posing for newspaper photog- 
raphers, but this one hardly to be compared to those 
dreadful moments at Sandy Ward's funeral. Actually the 
photographers' presence at the railroad station created a 
pleasant confusion that helped to get the three Wards over 
the first awkward minutes of greeting. "No more, please," 
said Hubert Ward. "Thanks, boys, but my mother's had a 
long trip. You understand." 

An unpleasant little man from one of the Los Angeles 

242 



THE BIG LAUGH 

papers said, "Hubie, isn't this a sort of a reconciliation, 
you and your mother?" 

Hubert Ward smiled and pretended not to under- 
stand the question. He leaned forward to the chauffeur. 
"Straight home, Harold/' he said. 

Nina did most of the talking on the ride down to 
Brentwood Heights, and Kitty Ward's contributions were 
largely comments on the flora of Southern California. At 
the house Hubert Ward said, "I have to leave you two, I'm 
shooting, but I'll see you this evening." 

"Do you know, I thought he must be wearing 
make-up," said Kitty Ward, when he had left. "You know, 
I'm getting terribly near-sighted. It's age, I suppose. When 
am I going to see your little girl?" 

"She gets home from school around four-thirty," said 
Nina. 

"I brought a little present for her. Does she like dolls? 
I couldn't think of anything else." 

"Loves them." 

"I suppose she gets a lot of them, from movie fans." 

"Well — not so many. She already had quite a few, 
though, before I knew Hubert." 

"I must get used to you calling him Hubert, too." 

"That's what the whole world calls him now. Or Hu- 
bie, but I don't like the nickname Hubie." 

"No. It's a family name, you know. It was my maiden 
name. We go back, oh, long before the Revolutionary War, 
the Huberts. Of course you do, too, the Parsonses. That's 
an old New England name, isn't it?" 

"Yes." 

243 



^\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"And your first husband was Mr. Stephens. That's a 
good old name, too. A Reverend Parsons christened one 
of my grandchildren. I always thought that was a good co- 
incidence, Parson Parsons. A friend of ours was named 
Sargent and he was a corporal in the Essex Troop. We 
were always hoping he'd be promoted to sergeant, but 
when the war came he was made a lieutenant. Your house 
is very English for California, isn't it? I expected some- 
thing quite different — not that I don't like it." 

"It isn't really our house. We're renting it," said Nina. 
"I didn't ask anyone for lunch, I thought you'd be tired. 
Tonight we're having my sister and her husband. They live 
in Beverly Hills. And Doris Arlington — " 

"Doris Arlington? Wonderful. One of my favorites." 

"She's coming, and a friend of hers, a Mr. Doyle Cor- 
dell." 

"From the movies?" 

"No, he's an oil man, I think. And Ruth St. Alban — " 

"Ruth St. Alban? Coming here?'' 

"Yes. Why?" 

"Well — you know — you get probably the wrong idea 
of a person from the parts they play." 

"I should hope so. I'm glad Hubert isn't like some of 
the characters he plays." 

"I never thought of that, but of course it's true. Hu- 
bert, as you call him, was a wild boy, and as his mother I'd 
be the first to admit it. But in just those few minutes I can 
see that he's changed a lot, and I think I know who I can 
thank for that. Are you happy, Nina?" 

"Well of course." 

244 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Then that's all I want to know. If you're happy, he's 
happy, and he wasn't very happy as a boy. A good deal 
of the trouble he got into was because he didn't seem to 
— I don't know, but he wasn't happy. But then you take 
my brother and I, Richard's uncle. We were happy as chil- 
dren, but I later on had to go through a lot, and my broth- 
er's not as happy as he should be in spite of all his suc- 
cess. You have to learn to take the good with the bad in 
life." 

"How very true. Would you like a cocktail, Mrs. 
Ward?" 

"Oh — are you having one?" 

"No, but don't let that stop you." 

"I don't think I will, thank you. We'll be having them 
before dinner and I can wait till then." 

"This being the middle of the week, it's going to be 
an early party. I imagine Doris and Ruth will be going 
home around ten." 

"That early?" 

"Oh, yes. And Hubert has to be up at half-past five." 

"Half -past five in the morning?" 

"Yes." 

Kitty Ward burst into hearty laughter. "Oh, that 
strikes me funny. Half-past five in the morning? Well, if 
the movies didn't do anything else they certainly changed 
one of his habits. We used to have to throw cold water on 
him to get him out of bed at nine. Wait till my brother 
hears that." 

Kitty Ward and Nina were left alone together after 
the dinner guests departed and Hubert Ward had retired. 

245 



—\ 



JOHN O HARA 

"I'd just love to sit up and talk, but I imagine you'd like to 
retire, too." 

"Ill stay up a little while. I always have a cup of 
coffee with Hubert at breakfast, but I'm not tired. How 
did you like your first movie stars?" 

"Doris is very witty, Doris Arlington. But she's so 
hard. I don't mean anything about her morals, but the 
things she says. And Ruth, Ruth St. Alban, she is like the 
parts she plays. The one I liked best tonight was your sis- 
ter, Josephine. I'm older, of course, but she was really a 
kindred spirit tonight. I think she felt the same way as I 
did about the movie actresses, and underneath 111 bet you 
do too, Nina." 

"No, I'm afraid I've gotten to like Doris. And Ruth is 
really rather pathetic." 

"Pathetic? Why do you say that?" 

"Well, I probably know so much more about her." 

"Oh." 

"Nothing very scandalous. But pathetic. And Doris 
seems hard because for a woman this is a very difficult 
business." 

"Ill bet it wasn't very difficult for her. I was disap- 
pointed in Doris Arlington, I always thought I'd like her. 
I never did think much of Ruth St. Alban, and 111 bet your 
sister Josephine doesn't think very much of her right this 
minute. I hope D wight isn't very susceptible, because 
Ruth St. Alban did everything but sit in his lap." 

"Well, maybe he'd be better off if somebody did sit 
in his lap." 

246 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Oh, you don't mean that, Nina. He and Josephine 
make an ideal couple." 

"Oh, they are. But D wight has no sense of humor, 
and if somebody like Ruth sat in his lap it might do him 
some good. Well, I'm afraid the time has come for me to — 
can I get you anything? I'm going to let you sleep in the 
morning. You ring whenever you want breakfast. I'll be 
out most of the morning, but I'll be back in time to take you 
to lunch. I thought I'd take you to the Vendome. That's a 
very dressy restaurant. Then after lunch we can drive 
around if you like." 

"Fine. I have some friends in Pasadena I'd like to see 
while I'm here. Josephine knows them. But otherwise I'll 
do anything you say." 

"We'll telephone them tomorrow. Goodnight, Mrs. 
Ward." 

"Goodnight, Nina." 

Hubert Ward was sitting up in bed, smoking a ciga- 
rette. "We can look forward to a month of that," he said. 

"Oh, I'll keep her occupied. I'll take her sightseeing, 
some of the sights I haven't seen. And she likes Josephine." 

"She's a total stranger to me." 

"Well, you won't have to see much of her." 

"But you will. I have a guilty conscience about that." 

"Don't have. She's not going to be any trouble. Shall 
I make you forget all about her?" 

"I wish you would." 

"Have you got any love scenes to play tomorrow?" 

"No." 

"I wouldn't want to take away from your ardor." 

247 



^n 



JOHN O HARA 

"Oh, yes you would." 

"No, I don't think that'd be fair. That's the way you 
earn your living, and if I make love to you the night before 
you wont be convincing. I don't mind if it's the other way, 
if making love for a picture makes you want to make love 
with me. But I don't think I ought to take away that look 
in your eye." 

"It's there, is it?" 

"Yes it is." 

"Well, tomorrow I get wounded at the Battle of Bull 
Run. I think it's Bull Run. Maybe it's Gettysburg." 

"Then it's all right if you look tired. I'll be right with 
you. Can't we tone down the lighting effects?" 

"You're getting pretty damn professional about this." 

"Well, I'd hate it if you called me an amateur." 

"That you are not." 

"Because I love my work. And I love you, too, un- 
happy little boy. 111 bet you were, as a matter of fact." 

"The hell I was. Go on, get your clothes off, Nina." 

"All right, lieutenant." 

"I'm a captain. And a Southern gentleman." 

"A Southern gentleman would never say, 'Get your 
clothes off, Nina.' " 

"How do you know?" 

"Well, as a matter of fact, I don't, so maybe you're 
right. Are you going to stab me, captain?" 

"Honey, you bet I am." 

"With what?" 

"You know with what, and where." 

"I'll be right with you, captain sir." 

248 



THE BIG LAUGH 

Nina filled Kitty's days with motor trips, shopping, 
and the social activities of women whose husbands were 
at work, chiefly women who were friends of Josephine Bar- 
ley. They supplied Kitty Ward with a society background 
— "Very good family back East" — but she was so like them 
in her fondness for idle chatter and her pursuit of unde- 
manding, uncompromising pleasures that they relaxed 
their vigilance against the snobbishness they always ex- 
pected from an Easterner. For her part Kitty declared she 
had never met so many nice women in any one place, and 
it became a problem for Nina to remind Kitty that she was 
invited for a month. ("Goodness, your visit is half over 
and I haven't taken you to Santa Barbara. We'll do that 
next week.") 

In the final week Kitty said to her daughter-in-law: 
"Nina, I want you to be perfectly honest with me. Is Hu- 
bert avoiding me? I've hardly talked to him alone since 
I've been here/' 

"Yes he is, in a way, and I think you can understand 
why," said Nina, who had been anticipating the question. 
"He wants this to be a pleasant visit, and not a time for 
going back over all those years." 

"You're a very wise girl, Nina. But of course being a 
mother yourself, you knew I could sense that." 

"Oh, of course you did. And hasn't it worked out bet- 
ter this way? I'm sure you must have been dreading the 
thought of rehashing all those years." 

"I was, and it wouldn't surprise me if Hubert had got 
the idea from you." 

"No, it was his idea, but I went along with it. Of 

249 



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JOHN O H AR A 

course he has changed, too. You Ve seen that. He's much 
more serious than he was. He takes everything more seri- 
ously. His work, for instance. He has a big responsibility, 
a lot of money is at stake when he does a picture. For in- 
stance, if he should fail to show up some day — the sniffles, 
or anything like that — really thousands of dollars would 
be lost, added to the cost of the picture. Thousands of dol- 
lars. That's why he's so careful what he eats, and goes to 
bed early. And they appreciate that at the studio." 

"I hope they do." 

"Oh, they do." 

"When he finishes the picture what will you do?" 

"We'll go somewhere together, away from everybody. 
We might charter someone's boat, or rent a log cabin in 
the mountains. Just be by ourselves for a month or so. 
Away from people and the telephone." 

"And take your little girl with you?" 

"Oh, no. I wouldn't take her out of school, and she 
loves being with Josephine." 

"Maybe I shouldn't ask this, but are you and Hubert 
planning to have a family?" 

"We certainly are. We want to have at least two chil- 
dren." 

"Maybe when you come back from your stay in the 
mountains. I want you to promise me you'll let me know 
as soon as you're sure." 

"I'm sure Hubert wouldn't be able to keep it to him- 
self, even if I wanted to. He's very anxious to have children, 
almost as anxious as I am, and that's saying a lot." 

"You're a wonderful mother, Nina. I think you ought 

250 



THE BIG LAUGH 

to have more children, you're so good with your own lit- 
tle girl, and she's a perfect angel of a child. She must have 
been a very great comfort to you." 

"Yes, but don't forget Hubert helped to heal that 
wound." 

They wanted to hear what they were saying to each 
other, so much so that either woman could have provided 
the other's next sentence. But no harm was done, except 
the slight damage to truth and candor; and since Kitty's 
visit was itself a small insult to truth — they had not in- 
vited her because they really wanted her — a few extra 
minor pretenses were in order. Kitty was packed off two 
days after her month was up. She had seen something of 
Southern California and the states along the Santa Fe 
right-of-way; she had met some top movie stars; made 
friends with women who would remember her if she re- 
turned to Los Angeles but would not think about her if 
she did not; she had become acquainted with a top movie 
star who was her own flesh and blood; she was much bet- 
ter off financially. On her last night Richard informed her 
that thenceforth she could count on an allowance of $10,- 
000 a year, which would be paid to her by his agent, Jack 
Golsen, in monthly installments. It had been a profitable 
trip. But on the train to Chicago she became unaccounta- 
bly depressed. Nina was a perfect wife, far better than 
Richard had a right to hope for, and Kitty adored her. She 
even said as much to a woman with whom she had two 
meals in the dining-car. But Richard should not have mar- 
ried a perfect wife; he should have married a tart and 
stayed the way he really was, the way he always had been. 

251 



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JOHN O H AR A 

The movie star, aware of his responsibilities, mindful of the 
cost when the sniffles kept him from work, giving his 
mother ten thousand a year, rejecting the raffish element 
of Hollywood in favor of a sort of country club mixture — 
this was not Richard Ward. Richard Ward had vanished. 
Hubert Ward was a huge face on a billboard, and nothing 
like that had ever come out of her, and it was not what she 
had squeezed out of Sandy into herself. 

In the earliest days the motion picture was manufac- 
tured in rooms called studios, not because the pioneers 
had delusions of art, but because the essential piece of 
equipment was the camera, and for nearly a century pho- 
tographers had been calling their places of business stu- 
dios. When the motion picture business moved to Califor- 
nia and began to acquire acreage, the people in the 
business borrowed an old circus term and spoke of the stu- 
dio as The Lot. As the industry prospered a new name was 
needed, but no one invented a good one; The Lot — the 
Warner Lot, the Paramount Lot — remained in accepta- 
ble usage in the trade, and The Studio became the desig- 
nation that was adopted by the trade and the general 
public. No one wanted to refer to the studios as factories, 
but that is what they were. In the clothing business, from 
which so many of the non-performing personnel had come, 
there was some creative talent and a great deal of tempera- 
ment — as in the manufacture of motion pictures — but no 
one objected to the word factory. In Hollywood, however, 
factory was a term of derision, and a man, usually a writer, 
who referred to a studio as a factory was likely to be the 

252 



THE BIG LAUGH 

kind of person who used factory and salt-mines and studio 
interchangeably. * 

Since he did not earn his living in a place called a 
factory but in a business that called itself a studio, Hu- 
bert Ward was permitted and even encouraged to call 
himself an artist. One studio, indeed, called itself United 
Artists, as another had called itself Famous Players. 
(There was no such nonsense in the name Warner Broth- 
ers. No one in the world ever paid a nickel to see a Warner 
brother, but there was no doubt about who was paying the 
artists they employed.) Joe Ziffrin was more than willing 
to have Hubert Ward consider himself an artist — remote, 
unavailable, self-confident — if Hubert Ward the artist 
would bear in mind that his art, to function at all, had to 
function in an atmosphere of dollars-and-cents profit. 
"There's more people see you in one picture than ever saw 
all of Shakespeare's actors in his whole lifetime," Joe Zif- 
frin told Hubert Ward. 

"I have no idea how many people that would be/' 
said Hubert Ward. 

"Well, neither do I, but from the pictures of those 
theaters I bet they didn't seat over a hundred, if that. In 
The Thin Grey Line you'll be seen by millions, millions. 
That title is out, by the way. Somebody just remembered 
it sounds like a plug for a bus line. Also, I don't like the 
word thin in there, and never did. A good fifty gees down 
the drain we spent publicizing the old title, but a bad title 
can kill a good picture, no matter what they say. And we 

* In later years the Irving Thalberg Building at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 
was known as The Iron Lung. 

253 



—\ 



JOHN O H AR A 

have a good picture, Hubie. You know what I consider a 
good sign?" 

"What?" 

"Marion Davies wants you to co-star." 

"No thanks." 

"Oh, we'll put her off, and the old man, but she only 
wants the top guys, and she never asked for you before. 
That's a good sign." 

"Well, put them off as long as you can, I don't care 
how you do it." 

"Ill do it by keeping you busy. I understand you and 
your missus are going away somewhere for a well-earned 
vacation, but take along a couple of outlines I got for your 
next picture. Just give them a cursory glance when you 
have a minute." 

"Have I got any choice?" 

"Legally, no, but you're pretty good at picking what's 
suitable. And you know why that is, Hubie?" 

"Why?" 

"Because you're developing a sense of box office. I'll 
never give anybody a term contract that includes the right 
to choose stories, but if I did give it to anybody, that per- 
son would be you." 

"Thanks, Joe." 

"And something else you got, absolutely remarkable 
in a fellow your age. You know when to stay out of the 
limelight. Some actors and particularly actresses want 
their name in every paper every day. But I can tell you 
from when I was a press agent, publicity that isn't tied in 
with a picture is only wearing out your welcome. Don't 

*54 



THE BIG LAUGH 

every time you eat in a restaurant think your name ought 
to be in Parsons's column. People get sick of seeing your 



name." 



"Did I ever mention to you that my wife's maiden 
name was Parsons?" 

"But she isn't any relation?" 

"No relation, and we've never even told Lollie." 

"It may come in handy sometime, but the way you're 
going you'll never need her. You would need her if you 
were looking for jobs, but you're all set, and if she does you 
a favor she expects one in return. I need her, but you 
don't." 

"I hope I never do.' 

"One of these days maybe you and the missus will 
condescend to come and have dinner at my house. Sylvia's 
most anxious to get acquainted with Nina, but I won't press 
it. That I can't legally make you do, and between you and 
I, the one that's goosing Sylvia into it is Mildred Simmons. 
You know, Hubie, I never heard a thing about you and 
Mildred all those years, but I think you were sticking it in 
there and fooling everybody." 

"You're wrong, Joe." 

"No. I may be wrong thinking you were laying her all 
the time, but I know you had a piece of it, because Mildred 
told Sylvia you did. And any time you want any more, it's 
there." 

"I don't want any." 

"Well, that's entirely up to you, but Mildred isn't giv- 
ing up. You know who she's got now, don't you?" 

"Don't know, and don't care." 

255 



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JOHN O H AR A 

"Well, it's the guy that gave you your start. Marty 
Ruskin. He's here talking a deal with Metro, producing." 

"I saw that, yes." 

"He's asking too much money, but if he comes down 
to earth I wouldn't be surprised to see him sign. He don't 
know a God damn thing about pictures, but Thalberg's get- 
ting ready to make him an offer. Marty was at the house the 
other night with Mildred, and don't think he doesn't bring 
up your name every chance he gets. There's a lot of people, 
Hubie, they're ready to cash in on your success." 

"Good luck to the little fairy." 

"Yeah? That I never knew. He's in the hay with Mil- 
dred." 

"Double-gaited." 

"That I can believe. He tried to tell me you had a bit 
of swish in you, and I wondered why the hell he'd say that, 
on your record. But now I begin to see daylight." 

"I wouldn't call that trying to cash in on my success." 

"Oh, I don't think he goes around saying it to every- 
body, but he can cash in and still put the knock on you. 
As far as that goes, Mildred blasts you, too, but Sylvia says 
you're a kind of a mania with Mildred. She hardly talks 
about anyone else. If it's any satisfaction, Marty Ruskin 
didn't take your place." 

"It's no satisfaction." 

"Marty said one funny thing, at my house. You know, 
he's one of those New York jerks that come out here and 
think they make an impression by knocking Hollywood." 

"That's been tried before." 

256 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"By experts. But he got on the subject of — now I can't 
think of the word. What was Chesterton famous for?" 

"I don't know." 

"Paradox! Marty said the most amusing paradox is 
you. Now wait a minute till I get it right. He said the big 
laugh is Hollywood, everything about it. And everywhere 
you went there was a big laugh, like Hubert Ward 
suddenly becoming respectable. Hollywood is a place 
where Hubert Ward can pass for respectable. But the big 
laugh, he said, was going to be when they found out that 
you were more respectable as a bum than as — you don't 
mind if I say this? — than as a hypocrite." 

"I don't mind anything Marty says, as long as he 
doesn't say it to me." 

"He has it in for you, but now I know why. And he 
and Mildred between them really go to work on you. Well, 
it wasn't so long ago that they were all wondering what 
you got out of it, sitting and chatting with her. And now 
she's practically telling them. I told Sylvia to be careful of 
that dame. I never liked Charley much, but I'll bet she 
gave him a bad time. These last couple of years something 
was eating him, and it was her." 

"Charley was a nice guy." 

"Maybe he was and maybe he wasn't, but he was too 
good to her. No dame is ever going to do that to me. I'll 
screw anything. I knocked off a piece of tail here yester- 
day, right in this room. A girl works on the second floor 
and I never took particular notice to her before, but she 
happened to get in the elevator with me. 'All the way, Mr. 
Ziffrin?' she said and put her finger on the button, but she 

257 



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JOHN O HARA 

meant it as a double meaning and I said yeah. I said I'd 
wait for her in my office and let her in through the hall 
door, so my secretary wouldn't see her. She was nothing 
special, not to look at, but she wanted to get laid and I'm 
the head of the studio. So we had a little screw. Listen, I 
don't have any illusions about myself, or about Sylvia 
either, for that matter. If she's getting it on the side, more 
power to her, because I could never be satisfied with one 
woman and she knows it. I don't care if they're a big star 
in pictures or some stenographer from the second floor, I'll 
take all I can get. It'd be different if I believed in love, but 
I don't. Who the hell would love an ugly little fellow like 
me? But I get plenty of tail. Some people complain about 
the way I eat. They say I don't have any manners. And 
they don't like how I dress. And I made plenty of enemies 
in business. So what? When I was a kid other kids used to 
run away from me, till I found out that money was power. 
So I used to steal money to take a girl to the picture show, 
and boy what went on there. You know what they call a 
shylock in New York City? That's a guy that lends you 
five bucks for six, a dollar a week interest. I was a shylock 
when I was sixteen years of age, loaning money to hack 
drivers. They didn't pay, I had a collector an Italian boy 
I'd give him five bucks to beat a guy up. He turned into 
Young Kid Marco, fought in Madison Square Garden a 
couple times. He got knocked off in some kind of a Black 
Hand war, but by then I owned my first theater on Avenue 
B. I took this studio away from Charley Simmons right 
under his nose, and I don't intend to stop here. Would 
Charley have showed me any mercy? No. Only he would 

258 



THE BIG LAUGH 

have done it his way, and my way he called gangster 
ethics. So what? I been called worse names than that. If 
your grosses are up, don't ever mind what they call you. 
Hubie. And you got Jack Golsen to do your dirty work." 
"Well, for the next couple of years the only dirty work 
he has is to pick up my cheque." 

"And maybe by that time you can get rid of him. A 
couple years from now Sylvia has a brother that's coming 
up in the agency business, and maybe you'll want to go 
with him." 

"Oh, I think I'll stick with Jack." 
"No hurry. Just a suggestion for the future." 
"Is that what you wanted to talk to me about, Joe?" 
"Hell, no. You mean I pick up a little splitting commis- 
sions with my brother-in-law? No, I'm past that, Hubie. 
Five or six years ago I would have, but I'm too big for that 
now. Five or six years ago I was still looking for every dol- 
lar so I could buy stock in the company. I would of washed 
your car if it meant a dollar, almost. But the chicken-feed 
days are over, Hubie. I don't have to chisel any more. You 
know why I wanted to have this chat with you? You know 
why I wanted to sit here and relax, with probably six or 
eight guys sitting outside in my reception room, and my 
switchboard buzzing?" 
"No. Tell me." 

"Because you and I are going places together, and we 
ought to get acquainted. I got you under contract, I got 
five other top people under contract. I just signed the 
smartest woman in the business for my Eastern story editor 
that's going to line up the best properties and only the 

259 



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JOHN O HARA 

best. I got Ken Downey under an exclusive contract for 
five years, a personal contract with me, not with the com- 
pany. And, if you can keep a secret, I got a wealthy man in 
New York, never put a nickel in any kind of show business 
before, that when the time comes, the psychological mo- 
ment, he's ready with a blank cheque. How do you like 
that for a setup?" 

"It looks very good/' 

"It looks very good? If I told you who the money man is 
I can hear you ask yourself how did this little heeb Joe 
Ziffrin get anywheres near So-and-so. Well, that's my 
secret, how I got to him, but I did." 

"But I'm not that big, that—" 

"No, you're not. But you're growing all the time, and 
right now I got you for pretty small money. Two years 
from now you'll only be twenty-seven-eight years of age, 
with many long years ahead of you. You play along with 
me now, and when the big things begin to happen, I'll 
take care of you. Just be satisfied for the present, Hubie. 
Play along with me. Make me look good now and by the 
time you're thirty years of age you won't be some 
washed-up ex-juvenile, you'll be one of the all-time big 
earners. Play it the way you been playing it lately. Stay 
out of trouble, stay out of the night clubs, and you'll be a 
second Ronnie Colman." 

"I'd kind of like to be a first Hubert Ward." 

"I don't care what you call it, as long as you know 
what I mean. Just let me remind you, though. Ronnie Col- 
man is right now I guess the wealthiest actor in pictures, 
and if anybody wants to call me a second Louis B. Mayer, 

260 



THE BIG LAUGH 

I got no objections if the money goes with it. How much 
are you worth? You're worth around a hundred and sixty 
thousand dollars cash." 

"I guess so. Ill take your word for it." 

"Take my word for it. Right now your missus is worth 
more. Don't get sore. With me it's business, Hubie, I didn't 
pry into your affairs for curiosity. I gotta know what you're 
drawing to, what's your hole card. But 111 tell you 
this, Hubie. I got no objection to you being worth a million 
dollars on your thirtieth birthday, and two million by the 
time you're thirty-five. And a big fat three million when 
you're forty. Just as long as I'm making mine while you're 
making yours. And I can practically guarantee it. For a 
guy that was getting ninety a week on Broadway a short 
while ago, three million socked away at forty is pretty 
nice." 

"I suppose you wouldn't tell me who your money 
man is in New York?" said Hubert Ward. 

"I wouldn't tell that to Sylvia, my own wife. I won't 
tell you anything about my business transactions. Charley 
Simmons used to try to find out, but if I told him I wouldn't 
be sitting in his office today. And neither would you." He 
leaned forward over his desk. "Hubie, you and I are 
a couple of bastards together, so let's understand each 
other, huh?" 

"All right." 

"Everything we say to each other stays right in this 
office, okay?" 

"Okay." 

261 



-n 



JOHN O HARA 

"And that includes if you ever get in any kind of a jam 
that I can get you out of, I'll do it." 

"Why?" 

"Because you don't want my job and I don't want 
yours, but the bigger we get, the more we're gonna need 
somebody we can go and talk to. You don't have any 
friends and I don't either, but I can talk to you and you can 
always talk to me. You know what ruined Charley Sim- 
mons?" 

"What?" 

"He couldn't face the fact that he was as much of a 
son of a bitch as you or me. The only son of a bitch he 
could talk to was his wife, and then he found out she was 
cheating on him. He didn't die of any broken neck. He 
was as good as dead as soon as Mildred told him about 
you." 

"There wasn't much to tell." 

"To Charley it was plenty. You know why, Hubie? 
Because she didn't have to tell him, the bitch. But when 
she told him, he knew she was doing it to ruin him. Oh, I 
know what people say about me. Vulgar and uncouth and 
all that, and slippery. But when it comes to people, I got 
a pretty good understanding." 

"Are you always right?" 

"The only one I was wrong about was myself. I 
thought I wanted to be a nice kid. But I didn't want to be a 
nice kid. That was listening to my parents. They wanted 
me to be a nice kid. I guess they took a look at me and de- 
cided 'This one we better be careful or he'll go to the elec- 
tric chair, like Gyp the Blood.' He was a distant relative 

262 



THE BIG LAUGH 

of my mother. You want to know the truth, I was headed in 
that direction. A few years older and maybe I'd of been Gyp 
the Blood. You killed a person/' 

"With a car, yes." 

"Nobody in my family ever owned a car till I bought 
one. I was over twenty years of age before I ever knew any- 
body that owned a car. Now I got four of them, and I still 
don't know how to drive. Well, Hubie, I got a fellow out 
there I guess I kept him waiting long enough. But this was 
enjoyable, this little chat. Regards to the missus and have 
an enjoyable vacation, wherever you're going. Oh, the out- 
lines. Take those outlines with you and just pore over them 
if you get a chance." 

They had one dreadful flop together, but the other 
pictures Ziffrin made with Hubert Ward were financial 
successes. There was the Foreign Legion picture, directed 
by Ken Downey and co-starring Maxine Rodelle, the new 
French import; there were two light comedies co-starring 
Doris Arlington in one and Ruth St. Alban in the second; 
there was the romantic reunion of Maxine Rodelle and 
Hubert Ward in the daringly frank love story of life among 
the artists in Bohemian Paris, France. As each of these 
pictures went into production Joe Ziffrin said "It can't 
miss," and it did not miss. Female stars wanted to work 
with Hubert Ward; they had to share top billing with 
him now, but he was an ideal leading man in that he made 
the women seem attractive, desirable, and from a picture 
with Hubert Ward they invariably went on to better pic- 
tures. "He makes you look good," said Doris Arlington. 

263 



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JOHN O HARA 

"He can't help it. Playing opposite Hubie Ward is as good 
as having your face lifted, and the smart girls are getting 
wise to that fact. I didn't realize it till Maxine showed me. 
That dame is way ahead of us Americans. She did that 
Foreign Legion opera with him, and she ran it over and 
over and over. Incidentally she can't stand Hubie. But she 
signed for that Paris picture and she got Ziffrin to run 
the Legion thing one afternoon, over and over. And she 
got together with Ken Downey beforehand and they have 
a scene in that picture that's the dirtiest thing I ever saw in 
a thirty-five-millimeter movie. But nobody can object to it." 

"What scene is that?" said Doyle Cordell. 

"In the attic, about halfway through the picture. 
She's going back to the guy that she left for Hubie, because 
he's supposed to be dying of T.B. She's saying goodbye 
to Hubie, and you know he's going to kiss her. But where s 
he going to kiss her? And if you remember that scene, he 
doesn't kiss her at all." 

"I thought he did." 

"You're a man. But he never does kiss her. That's left 
to the imagination of sixty million women. If Ken had let 
him kiss her smack on the mouth, it wouldn't have been 
dirty. But oh no. They fade out, and no kiss, and I defy any 
woman that's ever been laid not to fill in the next few min- 
utes of that scene. That was entirely Maxine Rodelle's idea, 
which she handed over to Ken. And there isn't a damn 
thing the Hays Office can do about it. They wouldn't even 
know how to write a memorandum about it." 

An anonymous critic on Time wrote irritably of "pout- 
ing Hubert Ward" and the participle was so right that it 

264 



THE BIG LAUGH 

was taken up by other critics, but without noticeable effect 
at the box office. A writer employed by Samuel Goldwyn 
came up with the interesting statistic that in four succes- 
sive pictures Hubert Ward had spoken the line: "Let's not 
think about it." As it happened, the writer had written the 
line in two of the earlier Hubert Ward pictures, and he 
declared that in writing for a Hubert Ward picture the 
line was unavoidable. At some point in any Hubert Ward 
romance the leading man and the leading woman would 
be placed in a situation that called for such a line, and it 
was given to Ward. The observation got back to Hubert 
Ward, and he demanded that Ziffrin buy a play by 
Clifford Odets. No Odets play was available, but an 
Odets imitator had a play for sale and Hubert Ward was 
placated. The picture was called Prisoners of Starvation. 
Hubert Ward played an idealistic young Jewish school- 
teacher who gets killed in the Spanish Civil War. Aside 
from some patronizingly approving reviews in the leftist 
press and a few statements of the plot by leftist reviewers 
in the capitalist newspapers the picture was a failure. It 
was cheaply made, and Ziffrin counted on foreign sales to 
minimize his loss, but overseas Prisoners was more savagely 
attacked than at home: Hubert Ward and Ziffrin and the 
obscure screen writers were exposed as counter-revolu- 
tionaries, boring from within, who had deliberately made a 
bad picture as a propaganda effort to ridicule the Loyal- 
ists. It was a confusing experience for Hubert Ward, who 
had only wanted to get away from "Let's not think about 
it." During the production period he was slightly sur- 
prised and pleased to be treated in friendly fashion by 

265 



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JOHN O HARA 

Hollywood intellectuals who had hitherto ignored him; 
he was baffled and then annoyed by the sudden hostility 
of Dwight Barley and Barley's friends and the Los Angeles 
newspapers. He contributed small sums to the various 
Loyalist causes, in the belief that it was good publicity for 
the picture. But when the American leftists, taking their 
cue from the radical journals in Paris and London, re- 
considered their attitude toward Prisoners, Hubert Ward 
and Ziffrin became the object of such vituperation as to 
make the Los Angeles papers' hostility seem a benediction. 
"I don't understand it," said Hubert Ward to his wife. 

"Not hard to understand. Everybody thinks you're a 
Communist except the Communists," said Nina Ward. 

"You don't think I'm a Communist." 

"No, not really. But you never asked me what I 
thought about your doing that picture." 

"Well, what did you think — now that it's all over?" 

"It isn't all over. Some people are never going to for- 
give you." 

"Dwight and Josephine, for instance?" 

"Josephine more than Dwight. And your mother. And 
my uncle." 

"That livery-stable man in Indiana, for God's sake." 

"Who was very nice to us when we got married." 

"Very nice to you, you mean." 

"And to you. You didn't want any publicity, and he 
arranged so you didn't get any." 

"Well, he never liked me anyway." 

"That is true. He didn't." 

"Do your 

266 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"What a stupid question." 

"Well, do you?" 

"Not always." 

"Then it wasn't such a stupid question after all." 

"Yes it was. I don't have to like everything you do." 

"I could fix it so you'd have a lot more to dislike." 

"Yes, you could. That's entirely up to you. Who with? 
Maxine Rodelle?" 

"Now wait a minute, Nina. I haven't fooled around 
with Maxine or anyone else, and you know it." 

"Do I know it?" 

"If you don't, you should." 

"I don't know what I know," she said. 

They had a child now, a two-year-old son called 
Christopher after Christopher Columbus, Christopher 
Morley, Christopher Mathewson, or the saint whose gold, 
unblessed medallion was fixed to the glove compartment 
of Nina's Lincoln Continental.* The child was fat and 
blue-eyed and blond, and well loved by Nina and Hubert 
Ward and by his half sister. Nina noticed but did not com- 
ment on the fact that after the birth of her son the house 
in Brentwood Heights was protected with a series of bur- 
glar alarms that Hubert Ward had not suggested while there 
was only Nina's daughter in the household. Hubert Ward, 
who had never owned a revolver, now kept three Police 
Special .38's in his bedroom, his study, and in Nina's car. 
The child had an English nurse, a Miss Gribble, and Nina 

° Neither the father nor the mother had heard of Christopher Ward's 
parodies. 

267 



JOHN O HARA 

bought a boxer which she called Henry, after Henry Arm- 
strong. 

About two months before the baby was born, and dur- 
ing the shooting of the Bohemians in Paris picture, Hubert 
Ward offered Maxine Rodelle a lift to the house she had 
rented in Beverly Hills. It was the first gesture of the kind 
he had made to her. "Will you care to stop for a drink?" 
she said. 

"Of course," he said. 

They were both tired and annoyed at Ken Downey, 
who had been using the technique of the insult to improve 
their performances. "That Ken, he is such a bastard," said 
Maxine. "You have worked with him more times than I. He 
does that very often?" 

"Too often." 

"Some day I walk off the set." 

"He'll have the camera on you when you do, and 
hell use the footage. He's a bastard all right. But he's 
good." 

"Yes." 

She was wearing black woolen slacks and a matching 
sweater, quite obviously without a brassiere, and drinking 
a split of champagne. Hubert Ward was drinking a Coca- 
Cola. "How is your wife?" she said. 

"She's fine, thanks." 

"When is the birth of the baby?" 

"Seven or eight weeks, they figure." 

"Your first baby?" 

"As far as I know," he said, with a smile. 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

"Yes, as far as you know," she said. "I would like to 
have a baby sometime." 

"All right. Shall we start one?" 

"No thank you. You are a good husband, Hubie. No 
one expected you to be one. I was warned about you be- 
fore I came to Hollywood." 

"How nice." 

"Yet you never made one single pass at me." 

"Well, you've been pretty busy, Maxine." 

"Is that why you never made one single pass at me?" 

"No. In the old days I would have." 

"That is better. A wolf, that is what I was told, but 
then this wolf never made one single pass at me." 

"No, but don't tempt me. I'm in the mood." 

"So am I." 

"You are?" He got up and sat beside her. 

"I don't like a man to be as rude as Ken. I wanted to 
cry but he wanted me to cry so I did not cry." 

"You don't seem on the verge of tears now, but do you 
want to cry now?" 

"No." She put down her glass. "Affection." 

He kissed her and she joined in the kiss. She drew back 
her head and smiled. "They would pay to see this," she 
said. She pulled her sweater over her head and she kissed 
him again. 

"Let's give them their money's worth," he said. 

"But of course," she said. She pretended to be speak- 
ing to a camerman. "Pan to the bedroom." She got up and 
he followed her. She got out of slacks and girdle and sat 

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JOHN O H AR A 

in the bed while he undressed. "How much would they 
pay for us now?" 

"Quite a lot." 

"I think they would pay a lot. We must give them 
their money's worth, Hubie. This they would pay a lot." 
She again spoke to the imaginary cameraman. "Close-up 
of this, please." 

When it was over she said, "Thank you, Hubie." 

"Thank you," he said. 

"No, I will sleep better now. He was so rude to me, 
that Ken." 

"Maybe I'd better thank him." 

"Why? Oh. No, you go home to your enceinte wife and 
forget us. You promise?" 

"I can't promise that, Maxine." 

"No, you can't. But tomorrow I have my chauffeur 
take me home. And the next day and all days." 

"In other words, this is a one-shot." 

"One-shot? Yes, a one-shot. But nice. I like you bet- 
ter." 

"I like you better." 

She laughed. "A good lay makes friends, yes?" 

"And a good bawling-out by that bastard Ken." 

"Very true. Goodnight, Hubie. One kiss, and good- 
night." 

He tried to be neither more nor less attentive to Nina, 
but a few days later, for no immediate reason, she said, 
"Pretty soon you're going to have to stay away from me 
entirely, we're not going to be able to make love at all. 
What will you do?" 

270 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"The same as you. Do without." 

"Can you? You never have." 

"Sure I can." 

"I knew a girl at home — this is an awful story. A girl 
was having a baby and she didn't want her husband to 
cheat on her, so she asked a friend to go to bed with her 
husband, and the friend said she would if my friend didn't 
hold it against her. Just sex." 

"And what happened?" 

"Well, they had sex and that was all there was to it, 
but then the other girl was having a baby and she asked 
my friend to do the same thing for her husband and my 
friend refused. Sort of made a whore out of the other girl, 
and they've never spoken since." 

"Your friend was a bitch." 

"My friend was me, Hubert. That's why it's such an 
awful story. The girl has never forgiven me, and I don't 
blame her. But I just couldn't sleep with her husband, on 
any grounds." 

"But you were willing to let Stephens sleep with a 
friend of yours." 

"Not willing. But I agreed, for health reasons." 

"Next question. Was it your idea, or Stephens's?" 

«TT. » 

His. 

"He convinced you that it would have been bad for 
his health to give up sex?" 
"Yes." 

"Amazing. What was his argument? How did he con- 
vince you?" 

"Listen, I didn't know anything about men, from per- 

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JOHN O HARA 

sonal experience. He had no trouble convincing me. I be- 
lieved everything he told me about men. He said it was 
something about the prostate gland. It was so long ago I 
don't remember very well, all the details. But he explained 
that it was harmful to stop, once a man had got used to it." 

"How could you have been so naive? You're not about 
other things." 

"I don't know, but I was. The whole thing about men 
mystifies me anyway. A woman — well, you can either put 
it in or you can't put it in. But a man has to get hard, and 
why does he get hard sometimes and sometimes can't. The 
doctor tried to explain it to me, but I guess I didn't listen 
carefully, or I was embarrassed or something." 

"Still another question. The girl that Stephens slept 
with. Did you choose her, or did Stephens?" 

"He did, or we both did. He suggested two or three 
names, and I picked one." 

"The least attractive?" 

"No, she wasn't. But I knew she'd had other affairs and 
I thought it would matter the least to her." 

"And so you had her over for tea one afternoon and 
suggested she might do you the favor of sleeping with your 
husband." 

"Almost like that. 7 went to her house. I was quite big, 
bigger than I am now." 

"Go on. It's quite a scene." 

"I said I was going to be frank and I wanted her to be, 
too. I said Wayne needed somebody to sleep with, and 
would she do it? I promised her I wouldn't be jealous and 
would keep it a secret, and that she'd be doing me a favor. 

272 



THE BIG LAUGH 

And she said she would as long as her husband didn't find 
out about it." 

"Where did they get together, the girl and your hus- 
band?" 

Nina was silent, then said, "In our house." 

"With you waiting downstairs?" 

"I usually went for a walk, but sometimes I waited 
downstairs." 

"Oh, this went on for quite a while?" 

"Over two months." 

"Then you put a stop to it?" 

"Yes. When I could resume relations with him." 

"Resume relations. Weren't you jealous of the girl?" 

"Horribly. But I tried to make myself believe I wasn't, 
that it was only sex." 

"Like two animals? No fun? No affection?" 

"I didn't let myself think about it too much." 

"Did you go on being friends with the girl?" 

"Curiously enough, I liked her a lot, and more than 1 
ever had. But I never felt the same way about him. Es- 
pecially when I found out that he'd made a fool of me." 

"Didn't you feel that that gave you the right to have 
an affair with somebody?" 

"I suppose I did." 

"But you didn't have an affair with somebody else?" 

"No." 

"But you could have very easily, when your friend 
got pregnant and asked you to." 

"I know. But with me it always had to be more than 
sex. I couldn't have got in bed with her husband. I could 

273 



JOHN O HARA 

have got in bed, but I couldn't have done anything. I'd 
have frozen up. But the girl has never spoken to me again, 
and I don't blame her." 

"Now, the big question. Why did you let Stephens 
get away with it?" 

"Because for two reasons. I was afraid of him, and I 
was in love with him." 

"How afraid? I didn't think you'd ever been afraid of 
anyone or anything." 

"Not physically. Not that he would beat me or any- 
thing like that. A man wouldn't understand this. But I was 
afraid that he'd go have other women, and I'd lose him and 
my marriage. He wasn't a great lover or anything like 
that. I was much more of a woman than he was a man, sex- 
ually. In plain language, he didn't always satisfy me. But 
for some strange reason that was part of the hold he had 
on me. Sometimes he did satisfy me, and I'd be crazy about 
him. But when he didn't satisfy me, I blamed myself, al- 
though I must have known better." 

"You wouldn't sleep with me before we were married." 

"No." 

"And when I first knew you you kept saying you 
wouldn't have anything messy. You don't call that messy, 
your husband and your friend?" 

"I call it very messy. Don't you see how I hated it?" 

"I suppose so." 

"You suppose so? If you slept with another woman 
now I'd leave you. I wouldn't go through that again. And 
here the temptation is much worse, not to speak of the 
opportunities. All these actresses." 

274 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Oh, nuts to that, Nina. It was one of your Lake Forest 
suburbanites that slept with your husband. And you, a 
Lake Forest suburbanite, that arranged it. Don't be so 
high and mighty about actresses." 

"I was thinking more of opportunities, but I shouldn't 
have spoken that way about actresses." 

"No, you shouldn't." 
I m sorry. 

Hubert Ward made a second effort in the direction of 
Maxine Rodelle but this one was unsuccessful. "Find 
someone else, Papa," she said. He found no one else be- 
cause he looked for no one else, and he remained, with 
that single exception, faithful to Nina. It was annoying 
therefore that more than two years later she should single 
out Maxine Rodelle as a candidate for his attentions; 
particularly annoying, of course, because his relations with 
Maxine had been not quite completely innocent. 

The minor disaster of Hubert Ward's single tenuous 
connection with Weltpolitik had no effect on his standing 
as a leading man. Ziffrin quickly put him in a South Sea 
island picture (shot at Catalina) with Maxine Rodelle 
beautifully miscast as a missionary's widow and a new- 
comer, Zella Flowers, as a half-caste child of nature. 
Maxine hated every minute of the competition with the 
Flowers bosom, and as a consequence the miscasting 
turned into an asset as she moved sternly through the pic- 
ture, disapproving the infatuation of the copra planter 
(Hubert Ward) and the Polynesian maiden. The picture, 
in Ziffrin's words, made a mint of money in spite of a par- 

275 



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JOHN O HARA 

tial boycott in the Southern states, where Miss Flowers was 
declared to be a mulatto. Her real name was Ellen 
Flannigan and she came from Buffalo, New York, but with 
a black wig, the right make-up, and her little Irish nose she 
looked plenty Polynesian. Ziffrin hesitated too long about 
putting her under contract and lost her to Metro, where 
she almost immediately became the mistress of Martin 
Ruskin, in his third year as a producer at the Culver City 
studio. Without the black wig Zella Flowers made the first 
of many appearances in the bread-and-butter series 
created and produced by Martin Ruskin, which told of 
romance and adventure in the life of a big city hospital. 
That old favorite of the legitimate theater, Philip W. Car- 
stairs, was brought out of retirement to play the crotch- 
ety, lovable, non-denominational chaplain in the series, 
which were written by Ralph Harding, the Broadway 
playwright. The head nurse was played by Hildegarde 
Finney, another favorite of the legitimate theater. 

As of anno Domini 1936 a fair statement of the fame 
of Hubert Ward would have been that his name and face 
were known in every community on earth that was served 
by electric current. It was probably true, and very nearly 
provable, that wherever there was the power to run a pro- 
jection machine, his name and his likeness were familiar 
to men, women and children who would sit or stand to 
watch a Hubert Ward cinema. In many lands his true 
voice was less well known, since the voices of other men 
were substituted for Hubert Ward's, but in the hill towns 
of Northern India and in villages in Northern Ireland his 

276 



THE BIG LAUGH 

appearance on the main thoroughfare would have stopped 
traffic for the same reason that the citizens of Hightstown, 
New Jersey, U.S.A., would have stared and gathered 
round him, eager to touch him, to have him scribble his 
name on a piece of paper. He was a big movie star. A big 
movie star. In the foreign lands they might — and usually 
did — change the titles of his pictures, but Hubert Ward's 
name stayed. He was often used by preachers as a handy 
symbol for sin; but he was also useful to the manufacturers 
of Chevrolets, Old Golds, Coca-Cola, and Colgate-Palm- 
olive-Peet products, whom he helped by recommending 
their wares. He had long since ceased to be known as the 
New York theater actor; in far-off places there were men 
and women who had seen Hubert Ward on screens under 
galvanized iron roofs, to whom the name New York meant 
nothing whatever. His photograph, cabinet-size and 
signed, rested on piano tops in the living quarters of 
royalty, and he now got mail addressed to Hubert Ward 
U.S.A. without delay. The larger mass of people were 
totally uncritical of his work as an actor; it was enough for 
them that he passed before their eyes once, twice, seven 
or eight times a year, embracing pretty women, engaged in 
combat with strong men, getting into and out of perilous 
situations; showing pleasure and fear and pain and sorrow. 
At least two women committed suicide with his photo- 
graph somewhere near them, and a young man in Danville, 
Illinois, had collected more than 9,000 newspaper and 
magazine clippings in which the name Hubert Ward was 
mentioned. A woman in Cleveland, Ohio, christened her 
twins Hubert Ward and Ward Hubert Malikowski. The 

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JOHN O H AR A 

Hubert Ward Fan Clubs, Incorporated, no longer a studio- 
inspired stunt, published a monthly bulletin with a circu- 
lation of 200,000 copies distributed in the English-speak- 
ing countries, and annually the newly elected president 
of the Fan Clubs made a trip to Hollywood for a two-day 
visit with their idol and the presentation of a cheque in his 
honor to the Boy Scouts of America, the Motion Picture Re- 
lief Fund, or some equally worthy cause. A judge in 
Queens County, New York, refused to permit a German- 
Jewish refugee to change his name to Hubert Ward, on 
the ground that a new citizen ought to choose a worthier 
name than that of a movie actor. 

The perquisites of his kind of fame were many; the 
potency of it was great so long as it was not put to any test. 
The perquisites consisted largely of luxuries and small 
courtesies. Hubert Ward would usually talk his way out 
of minor traffic offenses without displaying one of the nu- 
merous badges and shields signifying honorary member- 
ship in police departments and sheriffs' posses. He could 
cash a cheque anywhere in the world, and get a good table 
in a restaurant. When he traveled the railroads made him 
comfortable, and the telephone company would install an 
extension in his house in three hours. Such small favors as 
did not come to him on his own could be obtained through 
the studio. At the studio he was given princely treatment; 
beginning with his first appearance in the early morning, 
when the gate would be swung open for him so that he 
could proceed without halting, the studio made him feel 
important. His portrait in oils dominated the commissary, 
and he could leave his car unattended anywhere except 

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THE BIG LAUGH 

in the space reserved for Joe Ziffrin. His dressing-room was 
actually a suite, redecorated annually and providing 
luxurious living quarters if he wished to spend the night 
on the lot. He was Mister Ward to men and women twice 
his age, and, in certain cases, many times his ability. He 
was a big movie star, getting the treatment reserved for 
big movie stars, and no outsider attempting to understand 
a movie star could ever merely imagine the effect of all the 
homage, servility, and obsequiousness that went with star- 
dom. It had to be seen, and seen day after day, to be ap- 
preciated, and almost no one saw it who was not part of 
the industry. The outsider would hear about fantastic 
salaries, and could see the examples of conspicuous 
spending by the stars themselves — the houses, the motor 
cars, the jewelry, the furs — but it was the day-to-day, 
hour-by-hour, taken-for-granted, freely accorded palace 
treatment that affected these men and women, most of 
them of humble origin. A girl who at sixteen had run away 
with a trombonist in Sousa's band now had a private purse 
and an entourage befitting a queen; a young man who had 
been happy to get $10 on his twenty-first birthday and had 
been afraid of going to prison over a $37.50 cheque was 
now as famous as the Prince of Wales. 

The women were more adaptable to their new cir- 
cumstances than the men. Doris Arlington, for all her com- 
mon sense and realistic attitudes, still typified the female 
stars' quick and continuing acceptance of their position. 
They were movie queens, and they lived up to their station 
and the accompanying responsibility to what they properly 
called their public. Privately, surreptitiously, they might 

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JOHN O HARA 

make shrewd investments, but Garbo alone could ec- 
centrically own an obsolescent Lincoln and successfully re- 
sist the demands on her privacy; and even Garbo in the 
beginning had posed in a track suit for publicity photo- 
graphs. Doris Arlington, Constance Bennett, Joan Craw- 
ford, Kay Francis, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, and 
Ruth St. Alban did what was expected of them, and Dolly 
Madison and Marie Antoinette had not done it better. 

But the men were uncomfortable. There was always, 
with the men — including the most inflated egotisms among 
them — an embarrassed reluctance to take full part in 
the royal ceremonials at the premieres, the industry ban- 
quets, the sporting events. The men were always a little 
awkward, always a bit apologetic, sometimes discernibly 
timorous, as though in fear of a rude remark or a rotten 
tomato. They were extremely aware of the fact that a top 
hat is a traditional target, that tailcoats were rare in South- 
ern California, and that acting has never been regarded 
as the manliest way to earn a living. Consequently they 
had to force themselves to be cheerfully polite to the 
peculiar people who infested the ceremonials, and there 
was not a big star in the industry who could talk grace- 
fully for three minutes without a script. They wanted to 
get away from the microphone in a hurry, and luckily they 
usually did. Unfortunately, they did not stay away com- 
pletely or permanently; they were actors, and so long as 
other actors would be making appearances at the cere- 
monials, they all wanted to be there. It is above all a 
competitive occupation. 

It was also a demanding occupation without quite be- 

280 



THE BIG LAUGH 

ing hard work. It was repetitive and monotonous, and 
therefore tiring; and on occasion there were discomforts 
and, on some fewer occasions, physical hazards. But some- 
where between the work and the disproportionate rewards 
something was missing, and that absent factor was a feel- 
ing of accomplishment. No man in his right mind could 
continue to convince himself that his work in a picture was 
hard work as digging ditches is hard work, dangerous 
work as stringing transmission lines is dangerous work, or 
useful work as surgery, teaching, or farming is useful work. 
And even the advanced cases of egotism could not uphold 
their acting abilities against the seldom expressed but con- 
stantly implied superiority of men who had trouped with 
Merivale and Standing and Sothern and Cohan. The fame 
and the money were earned only to the extent that in the 
general inflation of notoriety and profit a man was entitled 
to his share, but neither the acting nor the rewards pro- 
vided the satisfaction of accomplishment, and the male 
stars sought escape from the unrealities in various ways. 
For some the means of escape was women; for others, 
booze; for a few, gambling. And some escaped by escaping 
to sport, to non-professional companionship, to periods of 
privacy at places removed from the movie colony. There 
were some who could shoot, and they shot; some who could 
honestly sail a sloop, and they sailed. They were the lucky 
ones, who would sit in their dressing-rooms between takes 
and dream and talk of the guns they had ordered from 
Purdey and the animals they would destroy; the boats 
they had ordered from Olin Stephens and the waters they 
would sail in. There were a few who got invited to the 

281 



—\ 



JOHN O HARA 

parties on Long Island, and campaigned for their Racquet 
Club hatbands. There were others who fled to foreign tol- 
erance to escape from their heterosexual masquerade. And 
there were the pitiful ones who took trips on which they 
were accompanied by a studio press agent and who got 
out at every five-minute stop to attract movie fans. 

Hubert Ward had escaped into respectability a short 
time before becoming a big star, and respectability re- 
mained his personal escape instead of women, alcohol, 
gambling, guns, sailing, homosexuality, social-climbing, 
or the intellectual pursuits that attracted almost no one of 
his standing. The novelty of respectability after his 
picaresque early life remained sufficiently attractive to 
have held him for possibly four or five years, but Nina had 
knowingly married a rogue, and one morning at twenty 
minutes to eleven, one night at half-past eight, and then 
at various times of various days she discovered and re- 
discovered that the domesticated rogue was boring her. 

It was not the way things were supposed to work out, 
according to men and women who had known Hubert 
Ward. All the predictions held that Hubert Ward within a 
year of his marriage would be sleeping with his co-stars or 
anyone else who caught his fancy and was agreeable. Nina 
herself had been vigilant against some such development. 
But except for the lapse with Maxine Rodelle, Hubert 
Ward had been faithful to his wife, and in his fidelity he 
had failed her. Nina's vigilance was a stimulating habit, 
and when the necessity for it apparently had vanished, 
Hubert ceased to be stimulating. Likewise their life in 
Southern California. Nina had believed that she was afraid 

282 



THE BIG LAUGH 

of what the motion picture industry could do to a marriage, 
and she was at first pleased that their life was as little 
different as possible in the circumstances from life in Lake 
Forest. But the day came when their life was, in effect, 
Lake Forest, Los Angeles County, California, and Dwight 
and Josephine Barley and their friends, assisted by Hubert 
Ward, had banished picture people. Nina's pleasure in 
this accomplishment lasted only as long as her movie star 
husband was exciting. 

"Let's have a party and have the whole movie crowd," 
she said one evening. 

"Good God, what for?" 

"Do you object? I thought you'd be pleased. We owe 
thousands of invitations." 

"Thousands of invitations we declined." 

"That's just it. Before you married me you'd have gone, 
and every once in a while a little remark here and there — I 
get the feeling that they resent me." 

"Let them." 

"No, I don't like to be a villainess," she said. "Fancy 
dress! Come as your favorite villainess, or villain. How about 
it?" 

"Well, what the hell— all right." 

They took over the Victor Hugo restaurant and hired 
Phil Oilman's orchestra. Fifteen outstanding movie ac- 
tresses came as Mata Hari without duplicating costumes; 
eight men came as John Wilkes Booth, and one of them 
had a fist fight with one of the three men who came 
as Adolf Hitler. Two women came as Shirley Temple. A 
Pasadena friend of the Dwight Barleys arrived in a wheel- 

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JOHN O HARA 

chair, impersonating Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Nero was 
popular among the stout guests, outnumbering Benito 
Mussolini eight to five. Catherine de Medicis, Cleopatra, 
Catherine of Russia, Sappho, Lydia Pinkham (im- 
personated by Jack Rodney, the hair stylist), Queen Eliza- 
beth, Marie Antoinette, and Amelia Bloomer (imper- 
sonated by Karll Langlie, the set dresser) were repre- 
sented as villainesses. The villain- villainess theme was 
somewhat distorted by actors and actresses coming as 
heroes and heroines, owing to the rather limited supply of 
readily recognizable symbols of wickedness. Hubert Ward 
dressed as Satan; Nina, in tights and fig leaves, as Eve 
After the Fall, the first villainess of all. They had a dinner 
party for forty at their house, and the first guests were al- 
ready dancing when they arrived at the restaurant shortly 
before eleven o'clock. It was almost the last Hubert Ward 
saw of his wife until the party broke up at five. "I don't 
know if anybody else had a good time, but I did," she said. 
"Did you?" 

"Nice of you to ask." 

"In other words, you didn't. You danced a lot." 

"Oh, you noticed that? Who was the character 
dressed as Benedict Arnold, or I guess he was supposed to 
be Benedict Arnold." 

"Very smart of you. People kept asking him if he was 
supposed to be George Washington. That was Michael Tre- 
maine." 

"Who's he?" 

"You ought to know. He's a writer at Metro." 

"How would I know a writer at Metro? They have a 

284 



THE BIG LAUGH 

hundred writers at Metro, most of them nobody ever 
heard of." 

"You must have heard of this one. He writes plays. He 
wrote Love and Anna Collier. Wasn't that a big hit?" 

"It was a big hit. I never read it. Who did he come 
with?" 

"Joan and Franchot. They asked to bring him." 

"No wife?" 

"Not here. She's staying back East." 

"Well, you kept him from getting homesick for one 
evening." 

"Very good dancer. Well, I'm glad we gave the party. 
It was well timed. People were criticizing me. It doesn't pay 
to be a snob. They couldn't hurt me, but they could take it 
out on you. Ziffrin said it was a very good idea to have the 
party just at this time." 

"Why?" 

"Because a lot of people had never met me, and they 
sort of resented me. We don't have to have them swarm- 
ing all over our house, but industry good will — anyway, 
that's what Ziffrin said." 

"Ziffrin is full of shit. If it was such a good idea I'll 
send him the bill. This thing is going to run close to twenty 
thousand bucks." 

"Don't you take it off your income tax?" 

"That isn't the same as handing me twenty thousand 
bucks." 

"Well, I had a good time, and 111 pay half if you want 
me to." 

285 



JOHN O HARA 

"You must have had a good time. When are we seeing 
Mr. Tremaine again?" 

"How did you know that?" 

"When are we?" 

"He's coming out to play tennis next Sunday. I 
thought we could have a few people in for lunch, and those 
that wanted to play tennis, could." 

"Nina, what gives?" 

"What gives what?" 

"This brawl tonight, and next Sunday people for 
lunch." 

"Don't you ever get tired of the same old faces? I do. 
You see other people at the studio, but I might just as well 
be in Lake Forest." 

"You'd never wear that costume in Lake Forest." 

"But I'm not in Lake Forest. Ziffrin said I could have a 
screen test." 

"Aren't you proud?" 

"Oh, he wasn't serious." 

"Maybe not about the screen test, but a screen test 
costs a thousand dollars." 

"Are you implying that Joe Ziffrin wouldn't give a 
thousand dollars to sleep with me? If you are, you're 
wrong. And if you think Joe Ziffrin was the only one that 
propositioned me tonight you have another think coming." 

"I see. That's what you consider a good time." 

"Any girl does, and heaven knows, Hubert, it's a long 
time since I've had a compliment from you." 

"Cost me twenty thousand dollars to find out that 

286 



THE BIG LAUGH 

you're getting bored with me. Expensive education. Good- 
night." 

"Goodnight." 

Michael Tremaine was a tall man with bushy greying 
hair, who chop-stroked every ball, forehand and backhand, 
and laughed contemptuously when he scored points. "I 
play to win," he said. "The hell with form." 

"But you've got the meanest chop, you put the worst 
cut on the ball," said Nina. 

"What are you squawking about? You beat me." 

"But I'm exhausted after two sets." 

"The hell you are. Let's play some doubles. Hubie?" 

"No thanks, I'm not playing today." 

"Come on, for Christ's sake. Work up a sweat, it'll do 
you good." 

"No thanks. I really don't like to play against a chop 
stroke." 

"Why not? It's all tennis." 

"That's just it, I don't think it is." 

"Tell you what I'll do. I'll play you for a hundred dol- 
lars, and I don't know how good you are." 

"Hubert would beat you, Mike." 

"Maybe he would, but the offer's still good." 

"I honestly don't think I want a hundred dollars that 
much." 

"All right, make it worth your while. I'll play you for 
a thousand dollars." 

"Why are you so anxious to play me? I'm not going 
to play you, so stop making those ridiculous offers." 

Tremaine reached in the pocket of his tennis shorts 

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JOHN O H AR A 

and drew out a money clip. It was stuffed out of shape with 
too many banknotes. He counted off ten bills. "One 
thousand dollars. It's not a ridiculous offer." 

"Oh, of course you have the money. I'm sure every- 
body knows that. What I wanted to know was, why do 
you want to play me? If I wanted to play you I'd play you 
for nothing." 

"Oh, it's personal." 

"I guess it must be, yes. I've seen you play, and Nina's 
right. I think I could take away your thousand dollars with- 
out a hell of a lot of trouble, chop stroke or no chop stroke. 
But why do you want to play me?" 

"Oh, give up, both of you. Hubert, you make me so 
damn mad," said Nina. 

"Why do I make you mad?" 

"Let's not go into it," she said. "Come on, Mike, we'll 
get two others and play doubles." 

"I'm going to take a nap. By the way, Tremaine, you 
don't have to carry your money in your pants pocket. It's 
safe here." Hubert Ward walked away, said a few words to 
the other guests, and retired to his room. He turned on the 
radio and lay on his bed, and after a while he fell asleep. 
The California sun had disappeared when he was awak- 
ened by Nina's presence in his room. "Are you looking 
for something?" he said. 

"Yes. A coat for Mike. Can I borrow your old polo 
coat?" 

"No, I'm fond of that coat. Where are you going?" 

"We're all going down to Malibu for supper. Shall I 
tell him you refused to lend him a coat?" 

288 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"I don't give a God damn what you tell him. Take 
another coat, for Christ's sake. That Burberry, the blue 
tweed. I don't like it, I never did. When will you be back?" 

"I don't know. Nine-thirty. Ten, probably. We're go- 
ing to that place that used to be Thelma Todd's." 

"I didn't ask you where you were going — " 

"Yes you did." 

"Yes, so I did. But I don't really care. I just wanted to 
know what to tell the children." 

"I've said goodnight to the children. I don't know why 
you're being so disagreeable, but I haven't time to talk 
about it now." 

"Let me know when you do have time, and you can 
fit me into your busy schedule." 

"Ill think about it." She put the blue tweed coat over 
her arm and departed, and in a few minutes he heard the 
cars leaving the property. He put on a suit and went to 
the nursery to say goodnight to his son, and he stopped and 
kissed Nina's daughter (whom he had legally adopted) in 
her room. He took the Continental and drove up to Sunset 
Boulevard and turned toward Beverly Hills for no other 
reason than an instinctive desire to go in the opposite di- 
rection from Nina and the others. The traffic was heavy, 
but he had nowhere to go, and in a little less than an hour 
he was in his suite at the studio. The silence was oppressive, 
and he had not felt so alone since the final days on 
the Cape, with the prospect of a jobless New York ahead of 
him. 

The silence was formidable. There was a radio in the 
suite, but he did not wish to break the silence with the 

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JOHN O HARA 

radio. He looked several times at the telephones, but no 
one would be calling him from outside the studio. No one 
but the watchman at the studio gate knew where he was. 
No one in the world but that one man in his sentry-box, 
reading the early edition of the Los Angeles Examiner, 
and too well trained in the eccentricities of movie stars to 
risk disturbing Hubert Ward. "I'm sure he expects a dame 
to show up," said Hubert Ward, breaking the silence. 

He was a prisoner. He could not go alone to the Vine 
Street Brown Derby without having to answer questions. 
He could not call anyone without raising questions. It was 
Sunday night, and he could not even make a play for 
any of the studio women in the Zinrin manner. He could 
not show up at Maxine Rodelle's or Ruth St. Alban's or Doris 
Arlington's. He looked at his watch and at the clocks in the 
suite; it was twenty past eight and all the people he knew 
were having Sunday night supper. The little girls he had 
once known were all five years older than they had been 
when he last called them — married, dead, working as 
waitresses, featured players, living with their lovers, busy, 
busy, busy. Golsen! Jack Golsen. 

He telephoned Golsen at his apartment, but there 
was no answer. He was disappointed, then just as well 
pleased. Golsen would have a girl and a table at the Troc- 
adero for ten o'clock, and he would make an emergency, a 
crisis, of a telephone call from Hubert Ward at this odd 
hour on a Sunday. Golsen would get rid of his girl, come to 
the studio, start guessing and master-minding — and from 
preaching he would proceed to procuring. Golsen was no 
solution, but one valuable thought had occurred while he 

290 



THE BIG LAUGH 

had Golsen in mind: this was not an emergency, but 
Hubert Ward knew it to be a crisis. Twenty-six past eight. 

He thought of calling KNX, the radio station. "Girls 
of Southern California," he would say. "This is Hubert 
Ward. I am all alone in my suite at the U. S. Films studio. 
Come and get it." He wandered about, gazing at the pho- 
tographs he knew so well of himself in scenes from all his 
pictures. Some but not all of the photographs included 
women; friends, mistresses, mistresses who had become 
friends, but there was not one he could call now, for con- 
versation, for consolation, or for sex. He was not quite 
ready to commit himself to adultery; if he did, Nina 
would know it the moment they confronted each other. 
And there was no one in Hollywood, no one in the entire 
world, in whom he could confide his tentative contempla- 
tion of infidelity. The suite was crowded with reassuring 
evidences of his fame, and it was the fame that had be- 
come so precious that it compelled him to sit alone with it 
and nothing else in a silent studio on a Sunday night, while 
the free and anonymous ones could be with each other. 
Ten minutes of nine. 

He went out and started his car. "Forgot something, 
Jerry," he said to the watchman. 

"Coming back, Mr. Ward?" 

"I don't know, I'm not sure," he said. He drove up to 
Sunset and headed homeward. 

She came home shortly before eleven. She hung his coat 
in the foyer closet. "Mike asked me to thank you for the 
coat," she said. "Did you go out for supper?" 

291 



JOHN O HARA 

"I went down to the studio. No, I didn't have any sup- 
per. 

"What did you get all dressed for?" 

"I was going to spend the night at the studio, but after 
I was there a while I changed my mind." 

"Haven't you had anything to eat?" 

"Yes. I had some corn flakes and a sliced banana, in 
the kitchen." 

"I had the worst steak I ever ate, bar none. One thing 
about coming from the Middle West, it spoils you for the 
rest of the country when it comes to steaks. Don't you want 
something more to eat?" 

"No thanks." 

"Well, then I'm off to bed. Did you leave word what 
time you want to be called?" 

"Six o'clock." 

"I won't see you that early. Is the Thermos in the 
kitchen with your coffee?" 

"Coffee, and the orange juice is squeezed. Before you 
leave, what about Tremaine?" 

"What about him?" 

"Well, are you seeing him again?" 

"Hubert, I haven't seen Tremaine, the way you imply. 
I haven't been alone with him. He wants me to have 
lunch with him tomorrow, but I can't. However, I am hav- 
ing lunch with him and two other people on Friday, 
and he's coming here to play tennis next Sunday." 

"No he isn't." 

"Yes he is. Don't make an issue of Mike Tremaine, or 
you may be sorry." 

292 






THE BIG LAUGH 

"I may be sorry if I don't. I don't want the son of a 
bitch in my house." 

"I never said a word when you had friends of yours 
I didn't particularly like. But if I can't have my friends 
here, I'll just have to meet them elsewhere. Take your 
choice." 

"Tremaine is no friend of yours. You've seen him twice 
— as far as I know." 

"I'm not going to have an affair with Mike Tremaine." 

"How do you know?" 

"Because I don't want to. You've gone away for weeks 
at a time, on location, and had breakfast, lunch and dinner 
with other women and I haven't complained. So I repeat, 
don't make an issue of Mike Tremaine." 

"I have made an issue of him." 

"All right. Ill disinvite him for next Sunday. It's your 
house. But in that case I'll tell him I've changed my mind 
about tomorrow." 

"You're going to have lunch with him tomorrow and 
Friday?" 

"Yes." 

"Okay, Nina. You haven't come to bed with me since 
we had that God damn party, and now you're slapping me 
in the face with this noisy, cheap showoff. I gather you 
know what you're doing." 

"I know what I'm doing, and I know a veiled threat 
when I hear one, too." 

"Well, I'll take the veil off it. Tremaine is a married 
man, and you're having lunch with him three times in one 
week — " 

293 



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JOHN O HARA 

Iwice. 

"Three times. Plus dinner tonight. You've never done 
that before. If you're not having an affair with him you're 
giving it a damn good chance to develop into one." 

"If it does, I'll tell you." 

"Thanks, you're so honorable it kills me." 

The first public notice of trouble was in a New York 
paper, in the form of a question by the columnist Ed Sul- 
livan: "The Hubert Wards acting silly?" 

"What about this, Hube? Is there any truth in it?" 
said Joe Ziffrin. 

"Just Nina taking an interest in play-writing," said 
Hubert Ward. 

"I didn't know you'd be so frank about it," said Ziffrin. 

"Why the hell not?" 

"Yeah, why the hell not, as long as you stay out of 
court." 

"We're nowhere near that stage." 

"I flatter myself I'm an expert on women, but what 
does Nina see in this Tremaine?" 

"Well, for that matter, what did she see in me?" 

"That's easy. You got the answer to that in fifty mil- 
lion women going to your pictures. But no woman I know 
of would ever pay money to see Tremaine, in or out of pic- 
tures. I guess he's so different from you. Well, Hube, a cer- 
tain party named Zella Flowers been asking me about you. 
She saw this thing in Ed's column." 

"I hear she's Marty Ruskin's girl." 

"No girl is Marty Ruskin's girl for long. And anyway, 
what if she was? You wouldn't be marrying her. Maybe 

294 



THE BIG LAUGH 

Marty would, but you wouldn't. They keep asking in the 
papers, when is Marty Ruskin marching up the aisle with 
Zella Flowers. Questions like that are responsible for a 
hell of a lot of marriages in this business. The dame wants 
a husband, and a guy like Marty figures what the hell, a 
luscious young broad for a couple years. Maybe a kid or 
two. And in Marty's case, to convince people he give up 
being a fag. You never had a thing with Doris Arlington, 
did you? That always surprised me. You two would of been 
a natural, somewhere along the line." 

"A lot of people thought that, I guess. But when I was 
on the town I wasn't big enough." 

"Big enough where? I know, I just couldn't resist the 
gag. I don't care what you do, Hube. Zella Flowers. Doris. 
But now nobody's gonna blame you, whereas till recently 
they would have." 

"All right. Come and have dinner Tuesday," said Doris 
Arlington. 

He went to her house, having had his secretary tele- 
phone Nina that he would not be home for dinner. Doris 
was wearing black velvet slacks and an embroidered 
blouse, and she sat with her legs arranged tailor fashion in 
what may have been deliberately discouraging to physical 
intimacy. She came immediately to the point. "You know 
I have a fellow," she said. 

"Doyle Cordell? Is he still it?" 

"Just so you know that, Hubie. But if you want some- 
body to talk to, you're my friend and Nina never was. I like 
Nina all right, but she could never be a friend of mine. 

295 



JOHN O HARA 

Ruth is the only woman friend I have, and I don't trust 
her too much either. So what's on your mind? First I'll 
ask you a question. Is Nina going to bed with this 
Tremaine?" 

I m not sure. 

"You have some doubts about it. If you want my opin- 
ion, I don't think she is. That's not saying she won't, but I 
have a hunch she isn't yet. You want what I think in a nut- 
shell, Nina is attracted to Tremaine because he's about as 
different from you as anyone could be. Now. But you were 
different, too, when you first knew Nina. Now you're get- 
ting more and more like that brother-in-law, Barley, and 
Tremaine is as different from you now as you were from 
Barley five or six years ago, whenever it was." 

Nothing else that was said during the evening stayed 
with him through the next day. 

A couple of weeks passed, and Hubert Ward was ly- 
ing on the sofa in his suite at the studio during the lunch 
break. His telephone buzzed. "Will you see Mr. Martin 
Ruskin?" said Lillian, his secretary. 

"Will I see him? Is he here?" 

"In the reception room." 

"All right, bring him in." 

Hubert Ward remained on the sofa. "I'm sure you'll 
forgive me for not getting up," he said. "What the hell 
do you want?" 

Ruskin had aged, not so much in the inevitable ways 
of natural aging — hair, skin, teeth — as in the sad evidences 
of the confirmed voluptuary, especially in the clouded 

296 



THE BIG LAUGH 

eyes and the thick, undisciplined lips. "You know damn 
well what I want. I want you to stop bothering Zella. I'm 
going to marry Zella — or I was." 

"Zella who?" 

"I expected some cheap wisecrack from you, Hubie. 
Richard Hubert Ward. But I don't have time for your wise- 
cracks." 

"You seem to have all the time in the world, Marty. 
Driving all the way from Culver City during lunch hour." 

"You were with her the night before last. You had her 
over here Monday afternoon. Sunday you were at her 
apartment all afternoon. Three times you been with her 
this past week." 

"I thought Bill Powell was the Thin Man on your 
lot. Do you do this shadowing yourself or did you hire a 
dick?" 

"You see this?" said Ruskin. 

Hubert Ward raised his head. "I see it. Put it away or 
it might go off." In Ruskin's hand lay a Colt .25 automatic 
pistol. 

"I carry it with me. The next time I see you with Zella 
I'm going to use it. You lousy son of a bitch, I took enough 
from you, you dirty stinking bastard. You ruined my life." 

"I ruined your life? I haven't even seen you for damn 
near ten years. Use your head. Put that thing away and 
pull yourself together." 

"This is loaded, I tell you." 

"I know it's loaded, and you've got the God damned 
safety off. I've handled guns more than you have, Marty. 
Put the gun on the table. Go on, Marty. Put it on the table." 

297 



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JOHN O HARA 

"No." 

"Marty, put the gun on the table and let me unload 
it. I'll give it back to you. You don't want to shoot me, you 
don't want to shoot anybody. But that thing can go off and 
you will shoot me or shoot yourself. Put the gun down on 
the table and then we can talk." 

Ruskin laid the gun on a coffee table. 

"Now sit down," said Hubert Ward. He did not rise 
from the sofa. "Do you want a drink? What do you want? 
Scotch? Rye?" 

"I don't want anything from you. Nothing." Ruskin 
backed into a chair, sat down and put his head in his 
hands, and Hubert Ward quickly got up and removed the 
clip and ejected the remaining cartridge. "I'll send this to 
you at Metro. Do you want a drink?" 

"No." 

"Then go on home and get some sleep. You look as if 
you hadn't slept for a week." 

"A week? It's over a week. Give me back my gun." 

"No. Ill send it to you tomorrow," said Hubert Ward. 
"Marty, if this got around you'd be cooked." 

"I don't care." 

"Don't be a fool. You've got a damn good job, you're 
making plenty of dough." Ruskin was not listening, but 
Hubert Ward continued. "You can go on making plenty of 
dough. They like you at Metro and you can stay there 
forever." 

Ruskin suddenly got up and walked out. Hubert Ward 
put the pistol and ammunition in a desk drawer, and tele- 
phoned Zella Flowers at the Metro studio. 

298 



THE BIG LAUGH 

"Your friend was here. He just left," said Hubert 
Ward. 

"Marty? Did you have any trouble?" 

"Zella, I don't want to frighten you, but he came here 
with a gun. I conned him out of it. Ive got it here. But he 
can get another one easily enough." 

"He told me he was going to kill you, but I thought 
he was bluffing. What do you think I ought to do?" 

"I don't know. He said he was going to marry you." 

"He talked about it, but I don't want to marry him." 

"Then I don't think you'd better see him any more." 

"That's not going to be so easy. I work for him." 

"Yes. That makes it tough." 

"And I'm under contract here." 

"Yes. Well, then maybe you'd better not see me for a 
while." 

"Just like that?" 

"For a while. And let's not kid ourselves. Do you want 
to get shot over me?" 

"It was you he was going to shoot, not me. But if you're 
afraid — what the hell?" 

"I'm afraid. I'm always afraid when a man has a gun. 
You ought to be, too, especially a guy like Ruskin. You 
know he's a fag." 

"He told me he went that way sometimes. But he says 
he loves me." 

"He probably does, Zella. But the point is, he's a bit 
cracked in the head, I think. What they call emotionally 
unstable." 

"Who isn't?" 

299 



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JOHN O HARA 

"True. But right now we're talking about Ruskin. Rus- 
kin and you. You have to decide, I'm only telling you what 
happened five minutes ago." 

"Decide what?" 

"Well, he knows exactly when I've seen you lately, 
either by having you followed or following you himself." 

"The little son of a bitch." 

"Yes. The question is, Zella, do we want to take a 
chance on getting shot or shot at — and the publicity would 
be just as bad if we got shot at. And the other thing is, 
you work for Ruskin." 

"This sounds to me like you were asking me to give 
myself the brush-off. That's a switch, I will say that much. 
Hubie?" 

"What?" 

"It was fun, sweetie." She hung up, and he never 
heard her speak again. He was to hear her voice again, on 
sound tracks of the few films she had made. But she died 
that night, and Marty Ruskin along with her, in her apart- 
ment on South Rodeo Drive. The bullets came from a .32 
Smith & Wesson revolver, and though no note was found, 
the police declared it to be a case of homicide and suicide, 
unmistakably a lovers' quarrel. 

The Ruskin-Flowers story was so lacking in mystery 
that it vanished from the papers in a few days, and Hubert 
Ward was not mentioned at all except in the list of Zella's 
films. The theory was advanced that the reason for the shoot- 
ings was religious differences between Ruskin and Zella, 
which prevented their marriage. But religion was a touchy 

300 



THE BIG LAUGH 

subject that at that time did not sell papers, and Ruskin was 
not identified as a Jew or Zella as a Roman Catholic. 
Ruskin, moreover, from the standpoint of news value was a 
dull, uninteresting man, who had never produced an "A" 
picture or been associated with any of Metro's top stars. 
The story lasted as long as it did only because it provided 
opportunities to publish photographs of Zella in Poly- 
nesian prints and bathing suits. The Los Angeles photog- 
raphers who covered Ruskin's memorial service had to be 
satisfied with producers, bit players, character actors and 
a few writers. Zella's body was shipped back to Buffalo, 
New York, where her requiem Mass got only local coverage. 
Metro sent out an announcement of the next picture in the 
hospital series, but did not mention Ruskin or Zella 
Flowers. In the word that was to become familiar a few 
years later, they were expendable; in the then still cur- 
rent slang of the industry, their tragedy laid an egg. They 
had never made it big, Ruskin as a producer, or Zella as an 
actress. Hollywood was willing to forget them, and 
promptly did so. 

But Hubert Ward did not. 

"You all right about this, Hube?" said Joe Ziffrin, 
in the first days of the notoriety. 

"I guess I'm safe, if that's what you mean. The cops 
haven't been around, and I guess they won't be now." 

"I didn't only mean it from that angle. What did 
Ruskin want the day he was here?" 

"You knew he was here?" 

"Sure I knew. I have to make sure I know it if a pro- 

301 



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JOHN O H AR A 

ducer from another lot visits one of my top stars. He 
wanted to talk about Zella?" 

"He threatened me with a .25. I talked him out of it. 
I have the God damn gun in my desk drawer." 

"Let me have it and 111 get rid of it for you. I'll drop 
it in the Channel on the way over to Catalina. You 
depressed about Zella?" 

"How did you know that?" 

"Well, what the hell. You're that human, and she was 
a good little doll. Four-five years she would of got fat and 
probably ended up a hooker, but she could certainly — well, 
she's dead so let's leave her respectable." 

"Oh, you, too?" 

"Hubie. A thing like that I wouldn't pass up. Sure. But 
she was a good Joe. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but when 
she got fat I would of always given her a couple days' work, 
if there was a spot for her. Some you're glad to see the last 
of, but her I kind of liked. And you did too." 

"I guess I did. Yes, I did. I really did." He told Ziffrin 
of his final telephone conversation with Zella Flowers. 

"That's what I mean, she was a good Joe. What about 
Ruskin, Hubie?" 

"He gave me the creeps, he always did. I pegged him 
as fag the first time I ever saw him. He was like some teach- 
ers I knew in school. And he was on the make for me, I 
wouldn't deny that. But the other day I couldn't help but 
feel sorry for him. He was convinced that somehow or other 
I was responsible for all his bad luck. I was persecuting 
him. It was ten years since I'd seen the son of a bitch, but 
he blamed me for all his troubles. About Zella, he had rea- 

302 



THE BIG LAUGH 

son to be sore at me. But what other bad luck did he have 
that I was responsible for?" 

"He had a fixation about you. It didn't make any 
difference whether you saw him or not, Hube. How many 
days a year could he pick up a paper and not see your name 
somewhere? That's a fixation he had. He hated you, talked 
about you all the time, but he was in love with you." 

"Yeah." 

"What are you thinking?" 

"A long time ago," said Hubert Ward, and told of the 
parti a trois with Ruskin and the girl whose name he could 
not now recall. 

"Oh, well" said Ziffrin. "You insulted his manhood, 
his womanhood, his faghood, his everything else. No 
wonder he hated you. And he never made any real dough 
out of you, don't overlook that. I heard that story, only he 
told it different. The way he told it, he laid the dame, but 
that I found hard to believe. That I wouldn't buy, but I 
didn't say anything. You know Marty was a friend of my 
wife Sylvia, and that gang she pals around with. The Com- 
munist intellectuals. They never had any use for you. You 
can be lucky they don't know what I know. I mean about 
you and Zella, or Marty pulling a gun on you. They'd 
throw a bucket of shit at you right now if they could." 

"You believed I was a fag. When did you stop believ- 
ing it?" 

"I didn't say that. But I used to hear Marty as much as 
say you were his boy friend, and you wouldn't be the first 
actor that some ugly little guy like Marty helped along in 
his career. I could name you a dozen." 

303 



JOHN O HARA 

"I could name you a dozen." 

"Sure you could. Get a couple English actors letting 
their hair down sometime and youll think everybody's 
queer. That London must be a fags' paradise, to hear them 
talk. Personally I never had a man go for me, not since I 
grew up. In the tenement where I lived an old guy used to 
give us kids pennies to let him play with our pecker, but 
he was just a dirty old man and the mothers finally got wise 
to him and a bunch of them one night tied him up and cut 
off his beard. He moved away, or the next thing they were 
going to pour scalding hot water over him. With women, 
though, I always seem to catch a lot of them at the right 
moment. And not all dogs, either. I probably get more tail 
in a year than any you handsome fellows. Marty used to 
say it right in front of Sylvia. 'The big laugh in this town is 
an ugly bastard like Joe Ziffrin or I getting more tail than 
these pretty boys like Hubert Ward/ Everything was the 
big laugh with Marty. But how many times did anybody 
ever see Marty laugh at anything? And who's the big laugh 
on now, the poor son of a bitch?" 



304 



r^ 



We have come now to the end of this chronicle. It is 
not, of course, the end of the story of Hubert Ward, which 
has not yet ended. He is around, and there is enough left 
of the big reputation to keep his vanity warm and his 
hopes alive. Thirty years of top billing in the show-business 
world makes a man hard to forget, and the public do not 
want to forget. A movie star's fame is mysteriously endur- 
ing; he is remembered and recognized well past his prime; 
his reputation is like the mysterious longevity of popular 
songs. A 1962 gathering of men and women in their thirties 
will unanimously remember the tune and most of the words 
of "Smiles," which was fourteen years old before the oldest 
man in the audience was born. A 1962 gathering of men 
and women in their twenties will instantly recognize the 

305 



JOHN O HARA 

name Hubert Ward, although most of them have never 
seen a Hubert Ward movie in a theater. They know who he 
is, and so long as they continue to know who he is he has 
his vanity and his hopes. ("You know who sat across from 
me on the plane? Hubert Ward. Honestly." "You know who 
I saw getting gas on the Parkway? Hubert Ward, in a 
Jaguar." "Guess who put Ma's suitcase up on the rack. Hu- 
bert Ward, the movie star. That big heavy suitcase." "You 
know who I think that is, dancing with the Stribling girl? 
I think that's Hubert Ward's son by his first wife. I'm al- 
most positive. Anyway, he looks enough like him.") 

Vanity? It needs no explanation. Hopes? The hopes of 
any actor. Top top billing in an all-star cast, a part as long 
as Hamlet, notices that can be framed, a play that will 
close to standees whenever the actor chooses to close the 
play, followed by a movie production with another but 
different all-star cast, with Hubert Ward the only actor 
carrying over from the stage play. It will not happen, be- 
cause Hubert Ward will not let it happen. He will always 
do something to defeat his own hopes. 

It is his form of self-destruction, equal in intensity to 
his instinct for self-protection. He was a rogue who had 
his middle period of respectability, that lasted only so long 
as Nina made respectability comfortable for him, that 
ended when Nina wearied of him. But his instinct for self- 
destruction compelled him to abandon the habits of re- 
spectability in spite of its rewards. His refusal to believe 
that Nina was not having an affair with Michael Tremaine 
brought about an affair that was not satisfactory to Nina 
or to Tremaine, but made it impossible for her to deny 

306 



THE BIG LAUGH 

that technically Tremaine had been her lover. Hubert 
Ward's marriage to the English actress Patricia Stanford 
was an act of defiance that even she recognized as such, 
and she made him pay dearly in money and in public 
affronts to his vanity, and in the loss of his friendship with 
Doris Arlington. ("I'd of sooner married you myself than 
see you married to that Limehouse slut. For a wedding 
present I'll send you a roll of toilet paper.") He was given 
odd jobs and a major's commission in the Air Force, a piece 
of luck that kept him in England for two years and sus- 
pended the personality attacks that could have caused him 
permanent damage inside the movie industry. He came 
home with silver leaves and a slightly dubious Air Medal, 
and was put right to work to cash in on his military service. 
His marriage in 1951 to Mary Jo Kitzmiller, widow of both 
Roy Ed Kitzmiller of Houston and Joe T. Biggs of San An- 
tonio, can be regarded as successful because, in Mary Jo's 
words, "Hubie and I don't figure to cramp one another's 
style, if you know what I mean and I'm sure you dew." It 
would be supererogatory to say that this marriage has very 
little to do with respectability. It would be accurate to say 
that Hubert Ward has logged many more hours in Mary 
Jo's private aircraft than in bombers in 1943-44. The Hu- 
bert Wards have not missed a Kentucky Derby since Count 
Turf's year and to date their most serious quarrel has been 
over Hubert Ward's inability to wangle an invitation to 
Grace Kelly's wedding. 

Mary Jo fully understands Hubert's reluctance to 
spend much time in Houston; she feels the same way 
about San Antonio, where Joe T. Biggs's five brothers live. 

307 



r^ 



JOHN O HARA 

Consequently the Hubert Wards maintain a house in 
Palm Beach that they call home, and apartments at the 
Waldorf, the Paris Ritz, the Bel- Air in Los Angeles, and a 
cottage in Saratoga Springs. At all these residences the 
Hollywood Reporter and weekly Variety are delivered by 
airmail if necessary throughout the year, so that Hubert 
Ward is never more than a day or two late with the news 
of show business. Mary Jo's formula for avoiding unhappi- 
ness over money matters was stated on the day they took 
out their marriage license: "111 let you keep all you have, 
and you let me keep all I have." On the one occasion of his 
proposing that she might want to invest some money in a 
motion picture production she said, "You can ask Judge 
Blaylock, but I don't think he'll go for it." Sam Blaylock, 
her Houston lawyer, expressed his opposition in such cour- 
teous terms that Hubert Ward said it was a pleasure to 
hear him say no, if that was what he was saying. "Then I'll 
say no, if you'd rather," said Blaylock. 

Even in the jet age it takes time to get from place to 
place, and Hubert Ward's year is segmented by travel and 
the brief stopovers in California, Texas, Florida, Kentucky, 
New York, and France. He has long since learned the 
names of the permanent servants in their various establish- 
ments maintained by Mary Jo, and half a dozen times a 
year he accepts their welcomes and farewells as genu- 
inely cordial, which in some cases they are. He is Hubert 
Ward the movie star, and no son of a bitch can take 
that away from him. 

Ha ha ha ha ha. 



308 



r"A 



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The big laugh, main 
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